By Ashley Sobhani, President, Walt Whitman High School Afghanistan School Project Club
Dr. Sima Samar is a highly respected human rights advocate from Afghanistan who promotes women's education and health, and has been seen as a possible Nobel Peace Prize candidate. While in exile from Afghanistan, Dr. Samar formed Shuhada Organization, which operates hospitals, clinics, educational facilities and shelters for women as well as schools, primarily for Afghan girls. The Afghanistan School Project Club raised $100,000 through the generosity of the Azerbaijan America Alliance for the establishment of schools in Afghanistan. Shuhada Organization will oversee the allocation of the funds. Following is a transcript of interviews I conducted by phone and email with Dr. Samar.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I was born in Ghazni province in Afghanistan and attended the Co-education School in Lashkargah , Helmand. I then completed my medical studies at Kabul University and graduated as a doctor in 1982. My first job was at the Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul. Due to political turmoil in Afghanistan I moved to Pakistan and lived there as refugee for 17 years. It was in Pakistan that I established Shuhada Organization and ran a hospital and schools for female Afghan refugees. I returned to Afghanistan in December 2001 as Deputy Chair of Afghanistan Interim Administration and in July 2002 was appointed Chair of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
What is the most negative stereotype of Afghanistan you wish to address?
The most negative attitude in Afghanistan is the growth of conservative Muslim ideology that misuses religion and culture to suppress women.
Is education a priority of the current Afghan government?
Yes, education is a priority in Afghanistan because it is the only means to change the mentality of the society, promote democracy and human rights. We cannot have sustainable peace if we cannot educate our public.
What do you see as the major challenges facing Afghan women?
The major challenges facing Afghan women are: lack of education and awareness about their rights; poverty and dependency on the male member of the family; lack of rule of law; misuse of religion and culture as a means to deny women's rights; lack of their access to health care, especially reproductive care; lack of political will among the leadership in the country to promote women's rights and equality.
What role do you think religion should play regarding education for young women?
Religion can play a positive role in the life of women if it is used in the right and positive way, but unfortunately it is always used to impose the power on women.
What can America do to assist Afghanistan short of spending more money?
America should take a long-term approach towards Afghanistan. It should be a multi-dimensional strategy whose main focus is education, job creation, and focusing on women as agents of change. The U.S. should not make the same mistakes as they did in 1992 when they abandoned Afghanistan.
What role does Shuhada Organization play in today's Afghanistan?
Shuhada Organization has played an important role in the education and health of Afghan society. For example, the Shuhada High School for Girls was the only school for girls in the country during the Taliban. Today, more than 50 percent of the Kabul University dorms are comprised of the girls from Shuhada schools. The other 50 percent work in other parts of Afghanistan, teaching women political participation in elections, educating them about violence and the dangers of opium production. The building of schools in very remote regions of Afghanistan, and training teachers (especially female teachers ) is another major area of our work. After a school is established, Shuhada hands over the schools to the government and moves on to the next remote region where the government cannot penetrate for either security or other reasons. In short, we are playing an active part in the reconstruction of a democratic Afghanistan.
What is the most satisfying part of building a school for these young women?
The most satisfying part for women in our society is that they have a roof on top of their heads and also there is a wall around them to be in a safer place to study.
If there is one impression you wish to leave the American readers with about Afghanistan, what would that be?
Afghanis are also human beings who deserve to have a peaceful and fulfilling life. The role of Afghan women in helping to move Afghanistan from a violent place to a country at peace with itself is critical. And for this role to be fulfilled our rights as women must be respected and preserved.