She could not have imagined
that one day she would become a famous medical doctor and a renowned rights
activist when in a sunny April day her father took her on rear rack of his
Indian bicycle to enroll her in a primary school. “My father took me to the
only girls’ school in Lashkar Gah. The school headmaster, Mahbobah Sufi,
introduced me to a teacher who tested my reading and math abilities and
registered me in second grade.”
In her early 70s, she looks
highly spirited and receives visitors of young and old ages, males and females,
who come from different provinces of the country to either pay homage or ask
her for help. Her cell phone every now and then rings. “When you work with
people you cannot turn off your cell phone,” she says.
She has eye-witnessed three regime
changes in her life time and has seen her country in peace and at war. Her
story, though is too long to be summarized in this profile, offers us
many—especially the young girls—a lesson about life, resistance and a constant
struggle to create identity.
One of the eleven children, Ms.
Sima Samar was born on February 03, 1957, in a tiny mountainous village in
southern province of Ghazni. Her father was a government clerk. Sima was enrolled
in a religious school where she was taught to learn Qaida Baghdadi, Koran, Panj
Ganj, Sheikh Sadi’s famous poetry on morality. “My uncle who was a mullah
taught me basic math and Koran,” she told me over a cup of tea and talk in her
residence, a German architecture, which as compared to the houses of other high
profile Afghan politicians, is loosely guarded. There is something mesmerizing
about her lifestyle: with short haircut, she has the appearance of a kind nurse
and the language of a reformist teacher who curses the cult of authoritarian mindset.
In 1964—when the country, under
pressure, was transformed into a constitutional monarchy, Ms. Sima, then six,
was taken to Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, where her
father was serving as finance officer at Helmand directorate.
The seven-year Sima, who was born into a Shia Hazara family, soon realized that Lashkar Gah was different from her birth village, not only in respect of landscape and weather but language, folklore and costume. People including some of her school teachers were not very friendly with the Shias. In the first day, her teacher, Shafiqa, reproaches Sima for her devoted childhood love for Imam Ali, the first Imam of the Shias, and Prophet Mohammad’s fourth, Islam’s fourth caliph, according to Sunni sect.
In 1960s, Afghanistan, under
King Zahir Shah, was swiftly transforming. King’s Prime Minister, Sardar Daud
Khan, who was king’s cousin and brother-in-law too, had taken new initiative to
educate female population in urban areas and promote modern education in rural
areas of the conservative Afghanistan where traditional clergies and feudal
leaders were in power. Lashkar Gah, then a small booming city in the south, was
open to newcomers with a co-education high school.
In Lashkar Gah, political
activities were not as flourishing as it were in the capital Kabul. Books and
magazines were available in the city albeit not all types of books and
magazines one wanted to read were found. “I was reading of any kind book I
could find to read. Mother by Maxim Gorky and The Miserable by Victor Hugo were
famous among high school students,” she recalls. “There was a bookseller in the
town who was renting a book out for two afghanis; we would rent book, read it,
and then return it.”
The young Samar, ambitious to
get education, wanted to become a civil engineer. “Civil engineering interested
me the most, in my eyes, a civil engineer, with helmet over his head, looked
With first grade, she graduated
from high school in 1975 and left Lashkar Gah for Kandahar to make Kankor exam,
university entry exam. “I loved to study civil engineering but my brother
convinced me to study medical science,” she says.
It was a tough journey for a
young woman in early 1970s to leave a province and come to Kabul for completion
of higher education. “My father was hesitant to let me study medical science in
Kabul Medical University.”
To convince her father, Sima
Samar, got engaged with a professor, Abdul Ghafor Sultani, who then was teaching
at science department of Kabul Polytechnic Collage. “I was sure that my father
would not let me live alone in Kabul even for purpose of study. He allowed me
to pursue my education after I was engaged with Ghafor,” she recalls.
The Afghan capital Kabul was
divided across ideological lines by the time Ms. Samar entered the city. Two
years before Sima’s coming to Kabul, Sardar Daud Khan had ousted his cousin
King Zahir Shah and had declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as the
president of the Republic of Afghanistan. Political development was fast and
life-changing. Three major political movements, openly opposing President
Sardar Daud’s policies on social reform and economic development, were
struggling to overthrow Sardar Daud. Peoples’ Democratic Party of Afghanistan
(PDPA), a Soviet-backed left party popular among urban population, was
preaching Soviet-style of social reform and development. The Progressive Youth
Organization (PYO), influenced by chairman Moa Zedong’s ideas, was opposing both
the Republic and the Moscow-backed PDPA. The third political movement—which was
fighting against the state and the two leftist parties—was the Muslim Youth, a
group inspired by ideology of Muslim Brotherhood.
The political dynamism at home,
however, was deeply influenced by political movements of the world. Vladimir
Lenin, Moa Zedong and Sayyed Qutb were the enchanting ghosts who had occupied
mind and body of the newly emerging Afghan political activism.
In a politically divided Kabul,
Ms. Samar chose to study medical science. Busy marriage life coupled with
university studies made her tougher and stronger. “I was doing the household
chores and my studies,” she recalls. Education, as now she says, was not only a
matter of future profession for her; it was a sheer struggle to create her
personal identity. “It was the very family institution where I felt being
undervalued,” she says. With getting higher education, the young Sima wanted to
prove two things: women can do every work and tribal notion about femininity is
a socially constructed biased perception.
Like many of her contemporaries,
Sima Samar, subscribed to leftist philosophy that was read and acclaimed in her
circle of friends. She would frequently meet top PYO theoreticians who were
distant relatives and close friends of her husband. But the couple, neither
Sima nor Ghafor, never sought to get membership of any political organization
at the time. Perhaps under historical dynamics, her intellectual development
took shape in a political environment which was influenced by Moa Zedong’s
ideas on social reform and economic development.
In April 27, 1978, Ms. Sima was
a third year student at Kabul medical university when the leftist Afghan army
generals, backed by PDPA, staged a bloody coup d’état that changed the
trajectory of Afghanistan, and fate of the visionary young Sima forever. “I was
in Wazir Akar Khan Hospital, doing my internship, all of sudden I heard fighter
jets hovering on the sky. That evening as I returned to my home, radio BBC
broadcasted that the Khalqis—a faction of PDPA—had overthrown Sardar Daud Khan”
Under President Noor Mohammad
Taraki, the new regime, audacious and dictatorial, initiated KGB style of
eavesdropping to control anti-government groups. Da Afghanistan da Gato da
Satalo Adara (AGSA), the regime’s spy agency, began acting as the right arm of the
Khalq regime, identifying, arresting, and killing of political groups: a murder
on national scale.
In June 1979, in an afternoon,
two men, introducing themselves as secret police, guided by a student of
science department of Kabul Polytechnic College, came to door of the house
where Sima and her husband were living.
“We take Ustad for a short
while and will bring him back soon,” said the student, Ms. Samar quotes as she recalls
the scene after 40 years, today. “We had 1200 afghanis at home, I took the
money put it in Ghafor’s coat pocket and asked him to wear his coat. He wore
it, left the house with them, and never came back,” she told me with a deep
pain touching her throat.
The horror of the situation
showed no mercy for Ms. Samar, as it did to thousands of Afghan victims, but
nothing changed her decision. In spite everything, as now four decades after
that day, she tells her eyewitness account, a glimmer of commitment to human
rights glitters in her eyes. Perhaps this is what that makes her a different
human being; different from those who choose to fight back evil with evil
Ms. Sima is brave enough to speak
her feeling about the loss of her husband. She, though now is a high profile
woman in the country’s politics, does not try to hide the abject poverty she
had to handle in the aftermath of her husband imprisonment by the brutal spy
agency of the regime. With a-three-year old child on her shoulder, she had to
undertake a range of responsibilities. “I was doing tailoring, Ghafor had
borrowed a 12,000 loan from Teacher Box loan, and I had to repay it,” she says.
Every hour, every day, every
week, and every month in the absence of her husband was like a hell. Every
Friday she would go to Pol-e-Charkhi, the country notorious central jail,
hoping to find her husband. Her account of going to Pol-e-Charkhi is sad
reflection of a young mother who is searching the father of her child, and a
heinous crime committed by abominable Amin regime that stood to the level of
brutality in which a regime is capable. In Ms. Sima’s sad story, the difference
between the perpetrator and the victim is marked by evil and good.
But the will to survive and
fight back evil forces served as beckon of future in Ms. Samar’s life. Broken
and tortured in the aftermath of the saddest episode of her life, she promises
herself to fight for humanity. The disappearance of her husband puts her in a situation,
out which she rises like the imaginary phoenix rising from its ashes. “The day
they took Ghafor, I promised myself to stay strong and never give up.”
In July 1982, Ms. Samar, having
earned an MD degree in medical, returned to Sang-e-Masha, the capital of
Jaghoori district. The district then was ruled by Shura-e Enqilab-e Etifaq-e
Islami Afghanistan, Revolutionary Council for the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan,
a military and political party, led by a Shia clerk, Sayed Ali Behishti. The
Shura had overthrown the communist government in Jaghoori and declared autonomy
“Following my graduation, I
took my son and moved to Jaghoori, with a stethoscope and blood pressure
monitor, and set up clinic in the castle of my father-in-law,” she
Life was not easy for a young
female doctor in a tribal remote district ruled by a group of devoted Shia
mullahs, and a newly-emerged militia commanders. Her very presence in a deeply
man-dominated society, however, was a manifestation instilling self-confidence
and hope in minds and hearts of coming female generations. In Jaghoori what made
Ms. Samar exceptional was not her profession; it was her self-fashioned style
of talking, behaving and dressing that made her an exceptional lady doctor who
believed that men and women should be treated equally. In Jaghoori, by a fortuitous
combination of luck, intelligence and hard- work, she taught herself English. “A
group French doctors, funded by Doctors Without Borders, were working there [in
Jaghoori], they would often come to me, or I would go to them, we were speaking
In Sang-e-Masha, except a small
number of her close friends and colleges, the rest—in particular those in
power— and the ruling local government were not comfortable to tolerate her
presence in social arena. “I was not afraid of anyone, wearing a shalwar kameez
which is typical of man and a small chador on head.”
In 1980s, the status of women
in tribal Jaghoori was largely characterized by social relationship and norms. Women,
no matter who she was, was treated as an object to serve the dignity and
formality of the tribe and family. Her male friends would frequently come to
her house for a cup of tea and chat. “One day, my father-in-law, [who was a
dignitary], excused himself to ask me if I was meeting with men,” Ms. Samar
recalls, “yes baba, they are my friends, I replied” she says.
It was in Jaghoori where Ms. Samar made a credible reputation on which she developed her future career and a new identity: a progressive lady doctor and a social worker who hates injustice and loves humanity.
In November 1984 Ms. Samar left
Afghanistan for Quetta, Pakistan. “It was a personal decision, there was not
any proper school in Jaghoori, and I wanted to enroll my son in a school,” she
In mid 1980s Quetta was center
of Afghan exiles who were escaping persecution by the Karmal regime and
mujahedeen groups. Many famous Afghan activists had taken refuge in the city.
There were small number of publications, printed by right and left wings of
Afghan exiles, preaching resistance against the Kabul regime, and the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan.
“In 1985 I worked in Mission Hospital in
Quetta but resigned my job and founded a hospital, Malalai Roghtona.”
Living in Quetta marked a new
episode in Ms. Sima’s career. In 1989, she founded Shuhada Organization, a
Norway-funded NGO providing health and education services for Afghan refugees
in Quetta, and running schools in central Afghanistan. She worked as medical
doctor and chaired the organization until December 22, 2001. From November 1984
until October 2001, Ms. Sima’s tireless efforts in exile did one thing: it
changed the face of central Afghanistan. Thousands of girls and boys graduated
out of dozens of high schools, run by Shuhada Organization in a country where
state had failed and a group of ragtag extremist militias had taken control
over lives of people.
“On October 07, 2001, I was in
Germany, invited by a women rights organization to share my thoughts on
situation, when the American forces launched attacks on Taliban.”
A glimmer of hope began to
shine. Taliban atrocities finally come to end as US forces, under command by
Bush administration, kicked off hunting Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters and
leaders. The US intervention in Afghanistan marked a new chapter in Samar’s
life and career, as it did change life courses of millions of Afghans in exile
and at home.
“The next week, I returned to
Pakistan and went Islamabad to meet UN envoy,” she says, “and told him that
this time, the government should not be formed without women.”
As the Taliban regime collapsed, Ms. Samar, then 44, appeared, this time a woman on the lead. She served as deputy chair of the head of interim administration and minister for women affairs. The irony of her political career, however, unfolded against her dreams and wishes. She had to work with a handful of mujahedeen most of whom had blood on their hands and had served as key commanders and masterminds of bloody civil war of 1990s.
Afghan politics, best known for
its tricky games, traditionally has been shaped, formulated and played by a
bunch of tribesmen, with women having no role in it. In post-Taliban era, women
presence and participation in politics, though might not have been as influential
as it should have been, changed the face of the country in mainstream western
media. Ms. Sima, hated by most hardline mujahedeen, faced up to death threats
to prove that she would never surrender.
“After I raised human rights
issues to cabinet agenda, a number of strongmen who were holding key security
and intelligence agencies put efforts to assassinate me.” “President Karzai
said I cannot guarantee your security,” she recalls as quoting, “I will not go
anywhere, this is my country, I replied Mr. Karzai as he offered me ambassadorial
post in my favorite country.”
In June 2002, she founded
Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in a country where key
government organizations were run by those who had turned Kabul into rubbles.
Amid conflict, nepotism and culture of impunity, the country’s human rights
commission though fell short to bring human rights abusers and war criminals to
justice, it has been serving as a scarecrow that warns Afghan strongmen to
harness their arbitrary behaviors.
Acclaimed by many international
rights organizations for her life time rights activism, Sima Samar was
appointed as the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Situation of Human
Rights for Sudan in August 2005.
In the verge of a peace deal
with the Taliban, Ms. Samar believes that war is not a solution to the Afghan
conflict. Appointed as state minister for human rights, she says peace deal
with the Taliban—a group that has committed many documented war crimes and
crime against humanity—should be signed on certain conditions.
Ms. Samar’s long influential
hold on NGO and her presence in politics might rise criticism as some of her
critics dare to formulate but her work for a better country and her struggle
for an educated nation are what that make her dear in the hearts and minds of
her fellow compatriots.
She will be remembered for her legacy.
With her simple words, Sima Samar gives new hope to new generation who are struggling to make their own identities. Her life, though filled by many sad and perhaps untold episodes, offers a new perspective: self-confidence is a key element of self-development. “Resistance”, she believes, “is the faith of every human who is fighting for a better world”– an optimistic statement by a woman who has seen kings in thrones and soldiers in blood.