On October 10, 2003, I was on a bus riding through the streets of Tehran when I heard the announcement that Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, had received the Nobel Peace Prize. This was my first visit to Iran as part of a citizen's diplomacy group; the bus erupted into euphoric cheers when we heard the news. As an Iranian-American, the joy and pride that I felt was indescribable. Dr. Ebadi represented the struggles of Iranians for reform, and gave voice to the student movements, persecuted intellectuals, human rights activists, and reformists working to better their government. Equally important, she represented an alternative view of Iran. Far from the images of the hostage crisis and Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran was now seen as a vibrant, progressive, and diverse society. Dr. Ebadi's award highlighted efforts to promote democracy within an Islamic framework and, as the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to receive the prestigious award, she challenged the assumptions about the agency of women in Muslim-majority countries.
The decision of the Nobel Committee to acknowledge Dr. Ebadi's human rights work was important in shifting the world's perception of Iran. Iran's neighbor, Afghanistan, is also in need of a new hero. Plagued by three decades of protracted conflict, broken state institutions, incredible corruption and impunity, and an increasingly unpopular government, the future of Afghanistan is bleak. It is precisely for these reasons that Dr. Sima Samar has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Many know Sima Samar as a human rights activist and as the former head of the Ministry of Women's Affairs. But her nomination signifies much more than recognizing her efforts to defend the rights of marginalized groups. Dr. Samar's nomination comes at a critical point in the Afghan war, including the US-imposed timeline for the beginning of troop withdrawals in July 2011, and the Afghan government's promotion of a political reconciliation process with the Taliban. Her nomination also coincides with the tenth anniversary of the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates the inclusion of gender perspectives in post-conflict processes, actions to address the specific needs of women and girls in conflict countries and, most importantly, an increase in women's participation and representation at all levels of decision-making.
Why Sima Samar? Simply put, she embodies the need for an inclusive and reconciliatory peace process in Afghanistan and, more broadly, women's inclusion in peace-making processes throughout the world. As the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHCR), an organization that protects and promotes human rights in Afghanistan, and advocates for justice, she represents all that the current peace process in lacking: inclusion and justice.
On September 28, Afghanistan took the first step in formal negotiations with insurgency leaders by announcing the members of the High Council for Peace. The 68-member council includes former jihadi leaders and regional strongmen, with civil society representatives noticeably missing. Unfortunately there are only eight women on this council, even though women have disproportionately suffered from Afghanistan's protracted conflict. This announcement starkly juxtaposes with the tenth year anniversary of UNSC Resolution 1325. At present, the world's track record of women's participation in peace negotiations averages only eight percent with only three percent as signatories.
Instead of asking the critical question of the implications for human rights in negotiations with the Taliban, the reconciliation process has been conflated with the US withdrawal strategy, much to the detriment of the Afghan people. A quick and dirty back room peace deal will benefit no one in the long run, and will likely be a repeat of the 1990s when the country was plunged into a brutal civil war followed by a Taliban government with a record of egregious human rights abuses. Although the war in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly unpopular, Samar's life is a very real example of what can happen if we leave behind a vulnerable Afghanistan with only a piece of paper promising sustainable peace. Samar, the first Hazara woman to receive a medical degree from Kabul University, had scarcely begun her career as a doctor when she was forced to flee to Pakistan in 1984. In the border region, she provided much needed health services for Afghan refugees escaping violence, eventually establishing the Shuhada Organization to provide health care for women and girls during the Taliban's reign.
At this critical juncture in the war in Afghanistan, Samar's nomination means many things to many people. To the world, at a time when the religion of Islam is grossly misunderstood by so many who equate it with terrorism, Samar's nomination tells a more nuanced story of resistance to injustice and promotion of peace. To the US, her nomination is a reminder of the sacrifice that Afghans made to help defeat communism and combat religious extremism. To the government of Afghanistan, her nomination is a protest of the exclusion of Afghan voices. This goes beyond quotas and token women, but a tangible commitment to represent men and women from all ethnic groups at the negotiation table to create a shared vision of Afghanistan's future. And, to the Afghan people, her nomination is an acknowledgment of their struggles for peace and justice and a clear signal from the world: You will not be forgotten again.