Her Crimes? Speaking Up for Justice and ‘Giving Paper and Pencils to Girls’

In a new memoir, doctor and human rights advocate Sima Samar describes how she has withstood discrimination and death threats to fight for accountability in Afghanistan

In her memoir, Sima Samar says she has three strikes against her in her native Afghanistan: She’s a woman, she speaks out for women’s rights, and she is of the persecuted Hazara minority group.

But she is also educated and persistent, and she found it hard “to learn the lesson of keeping my mouth shut” when she saw something wrong. Those qualities have fueled her tireless work for health and justice for the marginalized, earning her both death threats and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Samar describes her journey in Outspoken: My Fight for Freedom and Human Rights in Afghanistan, written with Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong. The book recounts Samar’s childhood in a polygamous family, where she witnessed her mother’s determined efforts to learn to read and her older sister’s forced marriage; the arranged marriage Samar herself agreed to so she could pursue her university studies; and the political purges during which her first husband was taken away, never to be seen again.

Samar rose from being a hospital physician to the founder of a network of four hospitals, 12 health clinics, and more than 50 schools for boys and girls in Afghanistan, as well as a hospital and four schools serving Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

“I found education to be a strong tool to change my personal life,” she said. “Being a medical doctor close to the people and watching the people’s suffering, particularly the women’s suffering as a victim of war and victim of culture and patriarchy, was the reason that I really tried to change things.”

She was named Afghanistan’s first minister of women’s affairs and deputy prime minister of the Afghanistan Interim Administration in 2001 and chaired the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission from July 2002 to 2019. She has lived in exile in the United States since the Taliban retook power in 2021 and is a fellow at The Fletcher School through the Scholars at Risk program.

Samar spoke with Tufts Now about her book and the ongoing need for accountability for human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

What prompted you to write a memoir now?

I wanted to write the book for a few reasons. One, I wanted young Afghan girls to know that when you decide to be someone, it is not impossible. It is difficult, but it is possible.

Second, I wanted them to know that if I reached the highest level of position in my country, it was not given to me as a gift. For some women in our region, politics is inherited. But I was not in my position because of my family heritage. I come from a middle-class family; it was my own determination, my own commitment to do it. I hope it will help with the self-confidence of the girls in my country.

And thirdly, I wanted to show how the international community was involved. I’m old enough and have seen 12 different leaders in my country. Mainly their attention was on self-promotion rather than doing good and promoting good governance, human rights, and equality. We were caught between during the Cold War, given the geopolitical position that Afghanistan has, caught between the extreme right and the extreme left. The international community chose and supported the most conservative group of people to stop the advancement of the USSR. Those people fought against the USSR, which was a good job, but in the meantime, they imposed harsh restrictions on the freedom of women and violated women’s rights, using the excuse of respecting religion and culture. And we ended up with the Taliban.

“Being a medical doctor close to the people and watching the people’s suffering, particularly the women’s suffering as a victim of war and victim of culture and patriarchy, was the reason that I really tried to change things.”

Sima Samar

After the 1978 coup d’etat in Afghanistan, when you were in medical school, people who opposed the new socialist regime were being arrested and killed. Your first husband was taken away in the night and never seen again. After the Soviet invasion the following year, you were part of the covert resistance, distributing pamphlets at night. What kept you resisting despite the dangers?

When the coup d’etat happened, they limited the freedom of the people. Listening to the BBC was counted as a crime and people were taken to jail because of that.

Whoever was not with those in power was taken and punished. From my husband’s family, four brothers were taken—64 people were taken from the extended family. Can you imagine? All of them were educated; they were teachers, they were doctors, and none of them came back.

Then the Russians invaded. We said it’s wrong that the Russians invaded our country in support of the puppet regime. People started to fight against the regime and the USSR with sticks and stones, to defend their freedoms and rights.

We were not sure when we went to class if we would come back. A lot of women were against the regime, but very few women were arrested.

The organization you founded, Shuhada, eventually grew to include many hospitals, health clinics, and schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How did factors like women’s roles and education affect your ability to provide health care, and the types of medical problems you saw and treated?

First, I went to my own village, and I saw that the women were dying because of simple things to treat, like incomplete abortion. It doesn’t need a luxury hospital; it might take three minutes to treat. Women were also dying because of retention of placenta; you could make a two-minute maneuver and save her life.

Then when I went to Pakistan, a lot of attention was given to the men because they were the ones carrying the guns. There was not much help for women. In 1985 to 1987, I was going to this camp [for refugees] twice a week, but the male doctor was going to the camp the whole week.

The rest of the days I was working in a hospital that was not open for emergency cases. We were working from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but not after that. Women cannot plan their delivery between 8 and 1, not with a normal delivery.

That’s why I decided to start the hospital for women and children. And then I started to have a midwifery training, because we didn’t have enough Afghan staff.

Then slowly I thought, OK, we need a future generation of doctors. So I started the girls’ school in Pakistan and the hospital and schools in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban took power for the first time, in 1996, you faced many death threats, but you stood your ground and responded, “Go ahead and hang me in the public square and tell the people my crime: Giving paper and pencils to girls.” Were you able to keep your schools operating for that five-year period of Taliban rule?

Yes, we were able to continue the schools. When I started the schools in Afghanistan, I started with boys’ schools in the village. Then the next year when I saw that the people were interested to send their children to school, I said, “If you don’t send your daughters, I’m not going to support only the boys’ school” and we started the girls’ school there.

We used the elders and the religious scholars from the region to tell the Taliban, “We want our daughters to go to school. Can you show us in the Quran and Islam where the girls are not allowed to get an education?”

They could not, so we continued the school. But they said that it cannot be above sixth grade, similar to today. So we changed the [labels] of the classrooms.

The only high schools for girls during the first Taliban regime were the high schools that I had. It was not a lot, but there were at least 30, 35 girls who graduated.

After the Taliban surrendered in 2001, you were named Afghanistan’s first minister of women’s affairs and deputy prime minister of the Afghanistan Interim Administration, but you were removed from the cabinet before the transitional government took office six months later. Why weren’t you able to stay in the government longer?

I was calling for accountability for major crimes committed in Afghanistan in the past.

We had a lot of commanders in the cabinet, and they were thinking that I was after them and trying to put them in prison. That was not my aim, but I was saying that they should at least apologize publicly to the people and not repeat what they did in the past.

They did not like me being in the cabinet. They pressured President Karzai.

They were writing that I’m not Muslim. There were death threats against me, and the representative of the UN deputy secretary general came at 1 a.m. to my house with international forces, with a tank, and took me to the guest house of the United Nations.

President Karzai was trying to convince me to go as an ambassador to Europe or another country. I said, “I’m not going out,” because I thought if I go out, then nobody can raise their voice and I’ve not committed any crime. I’m just saying that the people who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity should be accountable—at least apologize to people and not repeat it and not be in positions of power.

After that, from 2002 until 2019, you chaired the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, seeking accountability for human rights violations and justice for victims. What were some of your biggest accomplishments and challenges in that role?

I’m proud that I was able to introduce the words human rights to my people and explain what we mean by human rights. We wanted people to know their rights, because when you know your rights, you can defend your rights and respect other people’s rights. That will help the implementation of rule of law in the country. That was the biggest achievement.

Then we were able to fight for women’s rights, advancement for women, and adding the word woman in the constitution. We changed the definition of adultery in Afghanistan’s criminal law. We criminalized honor killing, which had been treated as a private issue of the family, so nobody was punished for it. We criminalized that. But of course, the Taliban has abolished those laws.

We changed a lot of laws to protect the rights of children in the country. We also did a lot of exceptional work on transitional justice. We did a national consultation with 7,000 people on the crimes committed in the past in Afghanistan, from 1978 up to 2001.

What I couldn’t achieve is accountability and justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The impunity continued in Afghanistan and continues up to today, not only in Afghanistan. I think it is everywhere.

When the U.S. and international forces withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Taliban retook power, it seemed like many of your accomplishments would be reversed. What is the situation for human rights and the education and health of women and girls in Afghanistan today?

The human rights situation is devastating, particularly for women, children, and minorities.

I think they changed Afghanistan once again to an open prison for women. They took away most of the rights: the right to movement, the right to education, the right to work outside of their house. They cannot even go to a park.

The right to health care is still there, but we don’t have enough female health workers; most of the ones who were in the country left. From my own close family alone, four of my nieces who were doctors all left the country. I read a report that out of 400 districts, 300 districts don’t have a female doctor.

The Taliban ordered that nobody can sell contraception, and contraception is not provided by the hospitals. They say that it’s a conspiracy to reduce the population of Muslims. The growth of population in Afghanistan is much higher than our economic development; it increases the poverty, increases the lack of education and frustrated men who cannot marry, and then they join these terrorist groups or criminal gangs.

What do you think could change the path of the Taliban now?

A lot of pressure. I think that sanctions should continue against them, and nobody should recognize their government, and pressure should be put on them on the human rights issues. Human rights should not be negotiated.

I think the main change should come from the people of Afghanistan. I know that the Taliban are very brutal. The people cannot raise their voice, and people are struggling for daily survival, but the people should come together and should stand against this brutality. I’m not in favor of war, but they can do a lot of civil disobedience.

If all the people do not come to work for a day or two or come to the street in hundreds of thousands and millions, how many can they kill, how many can they arrest? It is risky, but we are at risk anyway.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on the Persian version of the book, which might be much thicker than this one because it might be good to explain more to Afghan and Iranian readers.

My colleague and I started an NGO, Afghanistan Human Rights Center, based in the U.S. We hope that we will be able to get some resources to do human rights education and also to do some proper documentation [of human rights abuses] inside Afghanistan. We try not to put the people in danger over there, but some people still can work for us.

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