South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Kashmir Times on Jan. 11 by Anuradha Dutt ::

Afghanistan has been the land of conflict for many decades now. Dr Sima Samar, 57, renowned human rights campaigner and a vocal proponent of women’s identity and freedom in the strife-ridden country, looks back with pain on all those years of turmoil which began with the Soviet invasion in December 1979. The ensuing war ended with the Soviet troops finally withdrawing in 1989 but this was immediately followed by Taliban rule, which was marked by extreme discrimination against women and austerity. From 1994 to 2001, women in particular saw their liberty and mobility greatly compromised. Those were the dark years when they were forced to remain shrouded in a burqa (veil) and could be beaten up if they so much as expressed a wish to study, work or play. “We became the only country in the world to ban women’s education, that was how bad things had become,” remarks the committed activist.

Like many women in her country Samar, too, had lived her entire life under the shadow of violence. What set her apart was the fact that despite these challenges she managed to create an independent identity for herself. After her husband was arrested by thecommunist government in 1979, she fled to Pakistan with her small son to begin life anew as a refugee. She never saw or got any news of her husband again. Putting aside her acute sense of loss and grief, Samar then got down to the tough task of building a career in Pakistan. She used her medical training from Kabul University to work at the Mission Hospital’s refugee branch in Quetta, Pakistan. At the same time, she set an extraordinary example by becoming the first woman from her minority Hazara community to graduate as a medical doctor in 1982 from Kabul University.

During her years spent as a refugee, she observed the lack of health and educational facilities for women and decided to set up her own non-government organisation, Shuhada, in 1989, with the idea of addressing this issue. Shuhada started working in the core areas of health, education, human rights and the democratic processes and today continues to pursue its objective of shaping a modern, progressive society in partnership with numerous Afghan agencies, government departments and international bodies.

Even as she served her people while living in Pakistan, she continued to follow developments across the border as well. When the Allied Forces led by the United States attacked Afghanistan in retaliation for the September 11, 2001 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, she knew it was time for her to go back home. The US attacks resulted in the Taliban leaders fleeing to neighbouring regions and saw the installation of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president, backed by the West. Samar returned only to be inducted into the interim Karzai government, first as Deputy President and later as the Minister for Women’s Affairs.

While she was thrilled to have an opportunity to make a difference, politics turned out to be a different ball game altogether – one with which the good doctor was not all that comfortable. Ultimately, Samar was forced to quit in the wake of threats after her reported questioning of the Sharia in an interview that she gave to a Persian paper in Canada. In fact, ever since then she has been careful about expressing her views on religious laws.

However, her views are quite apparent. Remarking that “President Karzai is not very supportive of women’s rights”, she asserts, “we have to take our rights.” Then, after another significant pause, she asks, “Which religion is supportive of women? They all control. A country in turmoil for the past 35 years has the men trying to protect women by putting them behind walls.”

But times are rapidly changing for Afghanistan’s women and Samar is hopeful of the future, “Women in Afghanistan are better off these days. They are coming out without the burqa. They are running NGOs, businesses, construction firms and doing different kinds of work. They are into sports as well – around 2,400 girls are playing cricket. We have a female cricket and a football team.” Yet, Samar recognises the limits to women’s mobility, “Now, a million girls go to school and there are female health workers, but I think women only exercise basic freedom, not full freedom.”

Doing her bit to hasten the process of change, Samar has chosen to train her energies on creating a strong civil society that aggressively promotes human rights, children’s issues, health and education. After stepping down from the government she has pursued many different activities in the area of rights activism. From August 2005 to June 2009, she was the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan and is now the Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), which is affiliated to the Office of the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Many laurels have come her way, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1994 and the Right Livelihood Award in 2012 – to name two. She was also nominated for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize – a recognition that eventually went to US President Barack Obama.

For Samar, Afghanistan and its people remain her top priorities. Will she once again consider taking an active part in politics? “I’ll see how effective I will be – as an independent or as part of the government. But one thing is sure, we are looking at positive transformations ahead,” she says.

This optimism extends to the troop withdrawal as well, “I don’t think their leaving will leave the field open for the resurgence of obscurantist elements. The Taliban will not be able to come back to power,” she states with certainty. She cites three important reasons for saying this. One, the Afghan people had experienced Taliban’s aggression and did not trust them. Two, the media had become vocal and the country has come some way from the days when television was banned. Today, there were more than 300 publications in Afghanistan and over 60 TV channels, with many women journalists in the field doing great work. Three, there is a new generation that has benefited from education that is emerging, and which will not give up its rights or freedom.

That does not mean, of course, that Afghanistan’s problems have disappeared. Samar’s overriding concern is creating an inclusive society that was transparent and where women have their rights and dignity. She recalls that while, at the 2002 Loya Jirga (tribal assembly), the emphasis had been on “Muslim brothers”,more recently when her organisation had invited all the candidates participating in the April 2014 elections to speak on elections and human rights, the words “Muslim sisters” also figured in the speeches.

Samar is convinced that fundamentalism has no place in the new century and now it is up to women to push for change. She concludes, “Afghan women are fighting for power and position. We have a long way to go and we have to join hands. We know we won’t be given our rights as a gift.”

—(Women’s Feature Service)