The story of Sima Samar of Afghanistan
is a story of suffering but, more significantly, it is a story of one
woman's triumph over terrible odds. The circumstances of her birth and her
growth to personhood-that she was female and a member of a scorned minority
in her country-were difficult. Had she been born in safer climes and happier
times, she would have scaled even greater heights. Still, she has been able
to achieve much more than many who are blessed with the freedom to be and to
Sima Samar is in fact not her real name. One must understand the history of
her country and of the conflicts that have bedeviled it for centuries to
know why she had one name until she married and why she subsequently had to
give up that name for another.
Afghanistan is a small, underdeveloped country in Central Asia that is home
to many races and tribes, primarily the Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, Nuristani,
and Hazara. Divided by language, traditions, and religion, these diverse
peoples are so scattered throughout the country that no specific tribe can
be said to control any region completely. All efforts to establish
centralized rule in Afghanistan have been stymied by this lack of cultural
Sima Samar's real name was Marzia and she was born on 4 February 1955 in
Jaghori, Ghazni Province, in mountainous central Afghanistan. Both her
parents were members of the Persian-speaking Hazara tribe, often said to be
descendants of the Mongols who came with Genghis Khan when he invaded
Afghanistan in the thirteenth century.
Hazaras are stocky and Mongoloid in appearance. The majority are members of
the Shia branch of Islam. Their ancestors were often enslaved for failing to
pay tribute to Pashtun or Uzbek chiefs and were otherwise discriminated
against by the larger ethnic groups. They speak Hazaragi, which is similar
to Uzbeki, Turkish, and Persian, and cling to their traditional clothing of
green and red and a fondness for embroidery.
As Shias (or Shi'ites), the Hazara are members of a religious minority that
represents only 15 percent of all Muslims. To orthodox Sunnis, who account
for 80 percent of Afghanistan's population (and who also dominate in
Pakistan and among India's Muslims), the Shias represent a breakaway sect,
Marzia's father, Qadam Ali, whose name means "right at the feet of Ali,"
began life as a farmer. He learned to read and write in a madrasah
(religious school), where his brother was a mullah, and spent two years of
compulsory service in the army. Afterwards, he decided to enter the civil
service rather than return to his farm. Marzia's mother, Khorsheed (meaning
"sun"), was Qadam Ali's first wife, a homemaker who never went to school.
She married him when she was only thirteen.
At the time of Marzia' s birth, Afghanistan was led by Mohammad Daoud Khan.
Prime Minister Daoud, like the king he served, was descended from a royal
clan that traced its roots to Ahmed Shah Durrani, the man who had united the
region's tribes in 1747 and founded an Afghan empire. In the nineteenth
century, the country was caught between the expansionist ambitions of the
British and Russian empires and became a vulnerable buffer state. Britain
worried that Russia would use Afghanistan to enter India. Russia worried
that Britain would breach Afghanistan and threaten the southern flank of its
empire. This is exactly what happened. After the Second Anglo-Afghan War of
1878-1880, Afghanistan fell under British control and gained independence
again only after the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919. Afterwards, many
Pashtuns, the largest and more powerful of the Afghan groups, found
themselves in territories not returned to Afghanistan but incorporated
instead into a part of the British Raj that later became Pakistan.
In the 1920s, Afghanistan's progressive Pashtun king, Ammanullah, freed
women from obligatory purdah (the custom of isolating women from all men
except for close relatives) and the veil, or chadri; he also granted them
the right to education. As a first step, a number of Afghan girls were sent
to Turkey for higher education. Such measures invited criticism from Islamic
fundamentalists who viewed them as an insult to Islam and a threat to their
authority. They led a revolt and forced Ammanullah to seek refuge in
Europe-thus establishing a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the
Following a turbulent interlude, Ammanullah's former military commander
ousted the rebel regime and assumed the throne himself as Mohammad Nadir
Shah. He reversed Ammanullah's social reforms and ruled as a conservative
until his assassination in 1933, promulgating a constitution that, in the
words of Afghanistan scholar Louis Dupree, "created a façade of
parliamentary government while leaving control in the hands of the royal
family, [and]…the judiciary primarily under the religious leaders." Nadir
Shah was succeeded by his son, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who, in the years before
1953, presided over another abortive attempt by liberal modernizers to
institutionalize press freedom, political parties, free elections, and
parliamentary checks and balances.
The period between 1953 and 1963, in which Prime Minister Daoud was the
country's guiding leader, marked Afghanistan's entry into the Cold War.
Officially nonaligned, Afghanistan received foreign aid from both the United
States and the Soviet Union, but in far greater quantities from the latter,
especially in the area of military assistance. Daoud stressed modernization,
including infrastructure development and the promotion of higher education,
and he fostered the growth of a new generation of university graduates
exposed to Western ideas. Dramatically, and in the face of protest by
conservative mullahs, Daoud also opened new public spheres to women, such as
office and factory work, and challenged the belief that purdah and the
chadri were required by Islam. (Modernist religious legal scholars had
determined they were not.)
A new constitution promulgated by King Nadir Shah in 1964, following Daoud's
resignation (and when Marzia was nine years old), embodied Afghanistan's
so-called New Democracy. According to Louis Dupree, it laid down "the
fundamentals of social justice, equality before the law, personal liberty,
protection of private property, freedom of thought and expression, the right
to education and health facilities, and the right to form political
parties." The Constitution gave women access to all forms of education; it
granted them the right to vote, to run for public office, and to be
guaranteed positions in the parliament and the ministerial cabinet. It also
granted women access to all public institutions and to government and civil
service jobs and the freedom to dress as they pleased. In short, the new
Constitution envisioned an Afghanistan radically different from the reality.
In fact, in the real world of Marzia's youth the majority of Afghanistan's
female population was illiterate. (Indeed, functional literacy was under 10
percent for both women and men.) Despite Daoud's reforms and the 1964
Constitution, few women were actually given the opportunity to practice
their new rights. For one thing, given the limited reach of government, the
country's rural populace remained virtually ignorant of these attempts at
modernization. For another, influenced by traditional religious and tribal
leaders, even many women were inclined to be intolerant of such new ideas.
For centuries, Afghanistan's rulers had relied on foreign sources for
revenue and military strength. In modern times, these outside benefactors
included Britain and Russia (the Soviet Union) and, later, the United
States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others. With financial subsidies
and armaments flowing from the outside, the country's rulers felt little
need to develop strong internal institutions to ensure close ties between
the government in Kabul and outlying regions of the country. Instead, to
strengthen their hold on power, they tended to maximize social segmentation
among the heterogeneous population, thus minimizing opportunities for any
group to organize sufficiently to depose the government.
Since the Afghan state based much of its strength on external funding, it
had also done little to change the economic and social structures of the
countryside. Unsurprisingly, the lack of a tangible government presence
outside the urban areas led to difficulty in collecting taxes from the
country's numerous tribes.
Generally, towns and tribes were left to administer themselves and to settle
their own disputes, a function performed by landlords, tribal khans, or
local religious figures such as mullahs and ulama (Islamic scholars). There
were no real political parties until the 1950s and even these were not
nationwide parties in the modern sense. Kinship was the usual means of
gaining patronage or largess from the government, which meant that the
distribution of resources virtually always favored one tribe or province
Marzia was the fourth of twelve children-eight boys and four girls-and the
youngest from her father's first marriage. Both her parents were devoutly
religious Muslims. Ramadan was strictly observed in the home. Alcohol was
forbidden and the girls had to cover their heads with a scarf at all times.
Her father would start praying at three in the morning and end three hours
later. Her mother, an uneducated woman, had received some religious
instruction after her marriage to Qadam Ali. Even so, although she could
read the Koran she could not understand it.
Life was difficult for the Hazaras in their mountainous area. Every family
had a small piece of land and kept cows, sheep, goats, and chickens for
their own consumption. In Khorseed's family, even the male members,
including her father and her brothers, did not go to school. They were
farmers who collected bushes from the mountains for firewood in winter and
who each year killed one or two sheep, whose meat they dried. They grew
wheat and made bread but, like others in the region, bought tea, sugar, and
salt from others.
Marriages were arranged and early. Marzia's mother had her first
menstruation at fourteen, a year after her marriage to Qadam Ali. She was so
young and ignorant of marriage and motherhood that she beat her first baby
when it disturbed her sleep and no one was looking. Among Hazara men it was
common to have at least two wives. Qadam Ali took another wife shortly after
the birth of his second child by Khorsheed. He fathered children with both
wives and Marzia was only a week older than her father's first child by his
When Qadam Ali joined the government service he moved to Lashkar Gah, taking
with him his second wife and her son as well as Marzia's older sister and
brother. Khorsheed and Marzia remained in Jaghori, in Qadam Ali's two-room
house in a compound he shared with his brother. Qadam Ali visited Marzia and
her mother only once a year, for Jaghori was so far away that it took two or
three days to reach it.
Although her father sent her gifts and clothes from the city, Marzia
remembers a lonely childhood. She had no grandparents on either side of the
family. "We were alone," she says, and "I did not see any happiness in my
mother's life." Marzia did have a doting uncle, however. This was Asghar
Ali, her father's brother. "He really loved me," she says, "maybe because I
was very intelligent." In a way, Asghar Ali became her substitute father, so
much so that his own sons became jealous of the time he spent with her.
Qadam Ali encouraged his brother to send Marzia to school. At first, she was
not interested because of a rumor in the area that the police would catch
the girls and force them to go to a new government school. Each time she saw
the police outside her house, she would find a corner and hide.
Eventually, however, Marzia was brought to the mullah and learned not only
the Koran but also reading and writing in Persian and mathematics. When the
time came for her to go to a proper school, she went to a classroom in the
mosque with ten or twelve other girls. They shared the classroom with the
boys. It was an informal arrangement, with the mullah teaching all the
children of various ages. Sometimes, when the mullah was tired, the elder
students were asked to teach the younger ones. Sima Samar remembers that the
village mullah was paid (in kilos of wheat, rather than cash) whether
children attended the school or not, since teaching was but one of his many
responsibilities in the community.
When Marzia was seven, her father came to Jaghori and saw that she could
read and write a little. He persuaded his brother to take her and her mother
to Lashkar Gah. Life changed for Marzia when she arrived in Lashkar Gah. All
the schools at the time were run by the government but they taught religion
as a compulsory subject. One day, Qadam Ali took Marzia to a school whose
headmistress was the governor's wife. "My daughter knows how to read and
write," he told the headmistress, "and she knows a little mathematics." He
asked that she be tested for acceptance into the second grade.
The next day Marzia was given tests in reading, writing, mathematics, and
religion by one of the teachers. Not having been instructed at home on how
to answer the religion questions, she was baffled when the teacher began
beating her. "I started crying and saying, 'I am not coming to the school,'"
she recalls. But her father brought her to see the headmistress. A kind
Sunni woman, she kissed the terrified little girl and calmed her down. She
then asked Marzia the same questions the teacher had asked her. Only then
was it clear what had upset the teacher: she had given Shia answers to Sunni
questions. The Sunnis and Shias both believe in God and in the prophet
Mohammad but, when asked whom they follow, the Sunnis reply "Chamyar,"
meaning the four friends of the prophet, whereas the Shias say only "Ali."
The headmistress's advice to Marzia was: "At home you can say 'Ali' but in
school you should say 'Chamyar.'" The headmistress's kindness was a valuable
lesson in religious tolerance the girl never forgot.
It was with great apprehension that Marzia entered the second grade. She was
one of the few Hazaras at the school and the first Hazara girl. Many of the
students were Pashtuns and children whose fathers were in government
service. Only educated men allowed their daughters to attend the school. In
Marzia's graduating class, only two of the girls came from local families
and she was the only Hazara; the rest were from Kabul and other parts of the
For the next twelve years (1963-1975), Marzia attended primary, middle, and
high school in Lashkar Gah. The medium of instruction was Pashtun, but there
were American teachers belonging to the Peace Corps who handled the science
and mathematics classes. English was taught as a language starting in the
seventh grade and it was also from Peace Corps Volunteers that Marzia
Because she was a Hazara in a Pashtun-dominated school, Marzia pushed
herself to excel. And she succeeded. She says, "I was first all the time. I
tried to be first because I was a minority. It was easy for other students
to tease me or beat me. But if I was first, I was captain of the class and
had the possibility to control the others. So most of the teachers were good
to me." Some were not, however; as she recalls, these tended to be Pashtuns
who belonged to the pro-Russian Khalq Party, an influential group in those
After high school, Marzia thought of becoming an engineer. She had observed
that there were very few female engineers in her country. Afghanistan's
conservative Muslim culture still gave women few, if any, options in life,
despite the liberal laws and official policies of the 1950s and 1960s. In
childhood, females were controlled by their fathers and brothers; in
marriage, by their husbands; and in widowhood, by their sons. Many were
required by their families and communities to observe purdah and were denied
educations and careers. Most were still forced into arranged marriages.
In Marzia's own home, her father would say, "Why should we teach the girls?
Why should we spend for things for the girls? They will be property for
somebody else." Her brothers, she says, always came first. They had better
clothes and better school supplies, and they and their guests were served
Marzia was quite fortunate that her father sent her to school at all. In
doing so, he had to contend with disapproving friends who asked why he sent
his daughters to school, and why girl students had to wear socks and not the
Muslim scarf. In fact, Qadam Ali saw early on that Marzia had a good mind.
Indeed, she was the first girl in her school to finish at the top of her
class. When she was in twelfth grade, if a teacher in one of the lower
grades was absent, the headmaster would send Marzia to teach the class.
Seeing her talent, the headmaster pleaded with Qadam Ali to allow Marzia to
attend university so that she could study to be a teacher. But Qadam Ali's
enlightenment only stretched so far. He was adamant in saying "I don't want
the girls to work outside." Still, it was he who shopped for his daughters
at second-hand stores, which carried clothes from Europe and America, and
who bought nice cloth for the girls to sew at home.
In Lashkar Gah, the whole family-Qatam Ali's two wives and their
children-lived together in an American-style house. Marzia's sister had
married by this time, while her brother attended an army school in Kabul. It
was Marzia's mother who did the housework; she says, "My stepmother always
had children." Khorsheed "was the one who was ordered about all the
time-what to do, what to cook, what to buy, what not to buy." Exposure to
her mother's situation opened Marzia's eyes to the inferior status of Afghan
women. "It was not fair," she decided. "I said, 'If my father doesn't like
her, why does he keep her at home?' I tried to find the reason."
Her mother told her that when Qadam Ali took another wife, she felt "very
angry and very stupid." The second wife was the sister of Qadam Ali's office
colleague. One day, in the sixth year of their marriage, Qadam Ali came home
and casually told Khorsheed he was getting married. Thinking he was teasing,
she said okay; she didn't care. The two wives were the same age, but the
second wife was more mature than Khorsheed had been at the time of her own
When Marzia's own time came, she did not want to marry anyone. "I told my
father I was not going to marry because I saw the very bad experience of my
mother," she says. But in 1973, when she was in the tenth grade, Marzia met
Abdul Gafoo Sultani, a nephew of her stepmother and a Hazara like herself.
He was twenty-four and had just arrived from Russia, where he had spent six
years and earned a master's degree in physics.
Gafoo was one of only two Hazaras among some forty Afghan students who had
been sent to the Soviet Union. Like many other educated young men, he was a
member of Afghanistan's slowly awakening intelligentsia, a small but
influential group exposed to new technologies and ideologies. (As members of
his generation moved to political activism, however, they threatened the
country's power holders and soon became targets of repression.)
At this time, Afghanistan and Soviet Russia enjoyed friendly relations. The
United States, not wanting to offend its Cold War ally Pakistan, did not
extend military aid to Afghanistan. The Soviets were only too happy to do
so. Under the arrangement, Afghanistan sent men to Russia for military
training and, inside Afghanistan, Russian military men trained Afghan
soldiers and advised the national army. The year before Marzia's graduation
from high school, six girls from her school were sent to Russia to study
Gafoo first met Marzia at his aunt's house. He went there to console his
aunt whose father had recently died, but he lingered to talk with Marzia.
They discussed women's rights and politics and he asked her some questions
about physics as well. Marzia observed that, unlike many Afghan males, Gafoo
was not averse to having intellectual discussions with women.
Marzia also found it interesting that here was a man who had come from
Russia. Although she herself had had an aversion to Russia since childhood,
she was curious about how a communist country compared with a capitalist
one, including how each treated women. Gafoo was neither a Marxist nor a
devout Muslim but a liberal. He told Marzia that the communist system was
not working well and that what Soviet books said about Russia was quite
different from the reality.
In the politically open Afghan society of the 1960s and early 1970s, Marzia
was accustomed to discussing politics with her American teachers and in open
meetings on campus. She would listen to the news and carry on discussions
with her teachers in the classroom. She was, she says, an aggressive Marxist
at the time, a member of the Maoist pro-Beijing Shu'la-i Jawid (Eternal
Flame) Party. "Comparing capitalism and communism, we chose communism
because there were a lot of good things in the communist books-the equality
of humanity and all of those things. I was very aggressive about the
inequalities in our country and about women's rights; these issues were very
clear in communism."
In Afghanistan at this time there was a growing power struggle between and
among Marxist-Leninist parties and Islamist ones. The pro-Soviet People's
Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA, split into two rival factions, the
Khalq (Masses) and Parcham (Banner). For their part, many Islamists fled to
Pakistan after the coup staged in 1973 by former prime minister Daoud, who
abolished the monarchy, proclaimed the Republic of Afghanistan, and
installed himself as president and prime minister. The era of New Democracy
was over. Now, all political parties were driven underground, except the
pro-Russian ones. Daoud was friendly with the Soviets and, socially
speaking, his policies were progressive. He continued to promote freedoms
for Afghan women, including the right to violate purdah and to engage in
sports. Female university students could now go to school in jeans and
Gafoo would become a frequent visitor at Marzia's home. He was a good friend
of her stepbrother Kayung, who was in the engineering faculty in Kabul and
to whom Gafoo was in the habit of sending notes. But one day, when Marzia
was in the twelfth grade, a letter came from Gafoo addressed to her. The
letter said simply (as she recalls it), "I want to marry you. If you agree,
just send your answer and I will send my father to arrange the marriage."
She was very unhappy, she says, because, "if you fall in love in our country
it is a big story about you," meaning that a flood of gossip is sure to
This is why Marzia says that Gafoo had merely created "another problem for
me." The letter so upset her that she could not finish school that day.
Instead, she went home and confronted her brother about this friend of his
who had fallen in love with her. Her brother took the letter, read it, and
told Marzia she should be happy because Gafoo was "a very nice man, he is
educated, and he has very good ideas." When she told him she did not want to
marry, he called her stupid and warned her that someone else, some stupid
man, might come along and her father would give her to him. And that would
Gafoo's father and uncle soon came to ask Marzia's father for her hand.
Qadam Ali was ecstatic. Gafoo's father was his friend and Gafoo himself was
an educated man who had by then become a lecturer at Kabul University. Qadam
Ali said yes, and so sealed the couple's engagement.
By this time, Marzia had finished high school and already passed the
nationwide examination for admission to university; indeed, having scored
well on the examination, she had been offered a medical scholarship in
Australia, but her father had not allowed her to go. If she were a married
woman, she now reasoned, she could at least attend university freely. This
was the compelling reason she agreed to marry Gafoo at the age of eighteen.
But she had also assessed his sincerity. She had told him frankly that she
would not make a good wife but that she would be a good friend. All she
wanted, she said, was someone to listen to her and help her, not someone to
order her around and tell her what to wear and what to do. She told him she
could not obey his family, especially his father. Gafoo promised to be her
friend and to do his best for her. She believed him. Once married, Marzia
rushed to enter Kabul Medical University, albeit a month after classes had
started. With the help of Gafoo, who acquired notes from the lectures she
had missed, she was soon abreast of her classes.
The couple rented a small house near the university and walked to and from
school together. They had promised each other that, where household chores
were concerned, they would "share fifty-fifty." Sometimes, when Gafoo was
free earlier than Marzia, he would go home to do the laundry and cook the
meals. He was "very good," Marzia says. "He really helped me."
Subsisting on Gafoo's small salary as a teacher, they had no plans of having
children while Marzia was still at university. In her third year of medical
school, however, her parents-in-law started to pressure her to have a child.
She was thin and sickly but she and Gafoo decided to grant his parents'
wish, if only to put an end to their nagging. Their son, Ali, was born two
days before the start of Marzia's final examinations. She managed to take
the examinations despite his arrival and a half-meter-high snowfall. Her
mother took the newborn baby to live in the family compound in Lashkar Gah.
Thereafter, as Marzia finished medical school, she saw her child only once a
year, for ten or fifteen days at a time. The boy grew up thinking she was
his aunt. By the time Marzia finally received her diploma, Ali was five
On 27 April 1978, a revolutionary military council ousted and murdered Daoud
and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan headed by Nur Mohammad
Taraki, a leader of the Khalq (Masses) faction of the PDPA. The new ruling
party under Taraki and Hafizullah Amin expelled the rival Parcham faction
and embarked on revolution by decree and terror.
The Khalqis were determined to impose themselves as the sole ideological
force in Afghanistan. Doing this meant the ruthless elimination of all
sources of opposition, such as the Islamists, Maoists, and other members of
the intelligentsia. However, without experienced cadres or a mass
organization or, indeed, without any organized popular support, the new
government soon faced widespread opposition. Fighting erupted in different
parts of the country, some of it led by disaffected Muslim resistance
fighters, the mujahideen. But there was no truly organized, large-scale,
anti-government entity. Exiled Islamists in Pakistan had yet to set up
structures to control men in the field: resistance was purely local.
Meanwhile, thousands of people simply fled. The government response was
brutal. Alleged "enemies of the state" were taken away by the thousands and
murdered. Among them were New Democracy advocates, Parchamis, Marxists, and
social democrats; religious leaders, teachers, and students; lawyers,
judges, army officers, and diplomats; and members of virtually every Afghan
Gafoo's family was well known in the country. Its members included doctors,
engineers, a senator, and an army general. Gafoo himself was not involved in
any political activity. But in the chaos of the Khalq purge, Gafoo, his
uncle, his brother, and some of his cousins were arrested one night by
soldiers, some of whom were Gafoo's own students at Kabul University. At the
time, Marzia was working at a hospital on the eastern side of Kabul. On her
way back to Kabul University, she was told that there was fighting and
bombing in the central part of the city.
She had become accustomed to going over to the science faculty to look for
Gafoo. But that day she decided to go straight home. Her sister, who was in
the engineering faculty, arrived and also told her about the fighting. Gafoo
arrived later, and then Marzia's brothers. One of them went out with Gafoo's
younger brother, who was in the tenth grade, to buy bread before the six
o'clock curfew. Marzia's brother came back but without the boy. He had been
picked up by men in a car.
Alarmed, Marzia reminded Gafoo that only the week before she had urged him
to leave the country, perhaps to go to Iran, because the situation in
Afghanistan was getting worse. But Gafoo had refused because he had promised
Marzia she could finish her studies and get her diploma. Besides, he told
her, he had nothing to worry about; he did not belong to any party critical
of the government.
At ten that evening armed men knocked at the door and took away Gafoo and
his three brothers. Two of the men were Gafoo's students. They were very
apologetic. "When they release me, I'll be back," Gafoo told Marzia. "Don't
go anywhere," he added. That was the last time Marzia ever saw her husband.
The following week Marzia saw one of the students who had been in the
arresting party. When she reminded him about his assurances that Gafoo would
be released, he expressed surprise but could offer no information. Marzia
made many subsequent attempts to find her husband and to secure information
about him, but to no avail. No one seemed to know anything. There were no
records. This came as no surprise, given the chaotic state of the revolution
and Afghanistan's turbulent history.
Five or six months after Gafoo's disappearance, on 27 December 1979, the
Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to help subdue the anti-communist
resistance. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wanted to contain the growing
violence along the Russian border and to preempt possible American
intervention in Afghanistan, following the assassination of the U.S.
ambassador there the preceding February. The Soviet invasion worsened the
already explosive situation in Afghanistan, triggering an all-out civil war
among Afghanistan's ethnic and political factions and leading to the
widespread destruction of the few existing educational and health facilities
in the country.
Marzia was twenty-four. With her husband gone, though not officially dead,
the men in Marzia's family, particularly her father and her brothers, began
to assert their authority over her. They told her she would have to marry
again and warned her to stay away from political groups. Rather than listen
to them, she resumed her political involvement.
On the surface, Marzia was an apolitical medical student who attended
compulsory anti-Islamist meetings at school. But secretly she was helping to
print anti-government pamphlets at an underground press (equipped with
nothing more than a photocopying machine and a Dari typewriter) and, with
her Maoist friends, surreptitiously circulating them. (A common theme: the
rights of women under the Soviets and the real reason for Russia's
invasion.) A government curfew was strictly enforced from ten in the evening
to six in the morning. But at the first hour of morning, Marzia and her
friends would pretend to go to the public bath carrying clothes basins
filled with anti-government tracts, which they furtively distributed to
"It was dangerous," she says, recalling her activities in those days, "but
should we have kept quiet? How could one be neutral?" She had welcomed the
communists in the beginning because she had looked forward to a democracy in
her country, but she saw that the Russians were in too much of a hurry to
institute reforms that were inappropriate in her country. Like other
imperialist powers, the Soviet Union gave no consideration to the cultural
milieu of Afghanistan and assumed that whatever was good for Russians would
be good for everyone else.
Anti-Russians, including women, were being arrested or killed by members of
the Khalq Party. Students disappeared one after the other following a "knock
at the door." Marzia and her classmates were never sure they would arrive
for class the next day or make it back home in the evening. As these risks
mounted, so did threats from Afghanistan's Islamists, who were zealously
attempting to undermine the newly independent status of Afghan women. Women
who dared to go out without the chadri, for example, risked having acid
thrown in their faces. Even in her own home (which she shared with her
brother, her mother, and her son), Marzia was beaten by her brothers and,
later, her own father for anti-Islamic activities that they feared
endangered their lives as well as her own.
Marzia received her medical degree in February 1982. Of the sixty-five women
who started in her class only six graduated, two of them Hazara. Government
service was compulsory for all the new physicians; their educations had been
completely subsidized. Although Marzia wanted to specialize in gynecology,
the government steered her to internal medicine and she began her practice
at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul. After six months, however, Marzia
decided to return to Jaghori with Ali and Khorsheed. One reason was that
Jaghori was far from Kabul and the interfering influence of the men in her
family. Another was that it was under the control of anti-Russian mujahideen.
It was at this point that Marzia changed her name. She did this to protect
her family. Half of the country was under Russian control, the other half
under mujahideen resistance fighters. If she was identified by her real name
in mujahideen-occupied territory, she would have been a liability to her
father and the rest of her family who remained in Kabul and other cities.
The name Sima Samar was suggested by friends and she has used it ever since.
Sima Samar did not tell her in-laws in Jaghori that she was coming home
because she did not know how they would receive her. When she arrived with
Ali, she told them that she would stay for only twenty days. But when she
saw how badly the people needed a doctor, she decided to stay. She set up a
clinic in a small room with an examination table. For equipment, she had
only the stethoscope and blood pressure gauge she had used in Kabul.
At the time, Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) maintained
some clinics in Afghanistan, including one in Jaghori. They allowed Sima to
use their equipment and helped her when necessary. The clinic kept Sima very
busy but she also resumed her political activism in Jaghori, where the
population was generally sympathetic to the Ayatollah Khomeini regime in
Ali was unhappy in Jaghori and, for a brief period, Sima sent him back to
her mother in Kabul. But feeling lonely in her empty house, she soon sent
for him again and started to teach him Persian and the English alphabet. She
realized that Ali, the son of professionals, deserved nothing less than an
For the next two years, operating from her rudimentary clinic in Jaghori,
Sima treated civilians and mujahideen alike. But she needed to be careful
because there were government spies in the area. Some patients summoned her
in the middle of the night. She went to them secretly on foot, on horseback,
or riding a donkey. One day a man came and asked her to sign an agreement
promising to work for the government; in return, he promised to work for
Gafoo's release. She refused to sign, demanding that the man produce her
husband first. (This was not to be the last such offer she would receive.)
Soon thereafter, government troops entered the area.
It was no longer safe for Sima in Afghanistan. Moreover, her health was not
good; she had developed whooping cough. A French doctor with the Medicins
Sans Frontieres advised her to go for a checkup in Pakistan. She decided it
was time to leave. In Jaghori, the people begged her not to go but she told
them she was sick and assured them she would come back.
Sima Samar's brother, Abdul Samad, was living in Iran at the time. He now
returned to Jaghori to accompany his sister to Pakistan. In November 1984,
as winter set in, he, Sima, and Ali set out in a hired car for Quetta,
Pakistan, where Gafoo still had relatives. They had to drive at night,
taking secret roads in the free areas controlled by the mujahideen. Russian
airplanes were patrolling the roads leading to the border, for arms
smugglers. There was terrible danger from bombs and rocket launchers and
scores of people were killed as they fled.
Upon reaching Quetta, Sima went directly to the house of Gafoo's cousin and
stayed there until she found a house she could rent. A German doctor, who
was working among lepers in Pakistan, told her that if she wanted to
specialize at the Aga Khan Medical College, a famous institution in
Pakistan, she would arrange to pay for her studies; but Sima had to promise
to go back to Afghanistan afterwards. Sima found this condition insulting.
Instead, she applied for work at Mission Hospital in Quetta, where
Inter-Church Aid (ICA) was running a program for Afghan refugees.
The ICA representative, however, did not believe that Sima was a doctor
because she had no diploma. (This was true. To keep Sima and her fellow
graduates from leaving the country, the government of Afghanistan had
withheld their official diplomas and, instead, awarded the graduates a
certificate in Persian stating that they had completed their studies and
could practice as medical doctors. The certificate did not mention the
graduate's father's name, nor did it carry the graduate's photograph.
Deeming it worthless, Sima, along with most of her classmates, had
contemptuously torn up the certificate in front of university officials.
Some time later, she purchased a counterfeit diploma in Peshawar, Pakistan.)
Instead of dismissing her outright, however, the representative took Sima to
Mission Hospital's medical director. He questioned her about the treatment
of various diseases and, satisfied with her answers, told her to report for
work the next day.
Sima was assigned to attend to the female refugees at Mission Hospital four
days a week. For another two days, she was assigned to a refugee camp two
and a half hours' drive from Quetta. Most of the refugees in the camp were
Pashtun. The professionals and better-educated ones had already found places
for themselves in Pakistan's cities. Those who remained behind were
relatively poor and uneducated. The camp was supervised by fundamentalist
Muslim political parties who, with the assistance of the Pakistani
government, were busy acquiring arms from the United States and China to
fight the Russians. Unlike medical supplies, Sima noted bitterly, there was
no shortage of weapons. During this period, Afghanistan was flooded with
arms from abroad in support of both sides in the conflict.
In the refugee camp, Muslim women had to comply with rules far stricter than
those applying in their villages back home. At home, for example, women
covered their heads with a simple scarf; in the camp, zealous mullahs
required full purdah. Conservative mullahs also forbade women to visit male
doctors and to attend school. Working outside the home was forbidden. When
treating such women, Sima taught them embroidery skills to help them earn
Women's diseases were prevalent in the camp, especially among the Pashtun.
Not only were women forbidden to see male doctors, they were reluctant to
divulge their health problems to anyone, including their husbands and even
Dr. Sima herself. She had to insist that they tell her what was wrong. Even
so, some resisted. On one occasion, for example, a pregnant woman refused to
allow Sima to give her an internal examination or to send her to the
hospital even as she lay dying (and even after her husband had given his
permission); she died with her child still in her womb.
At the Mission Hospital, Sima ran into some prejudice against Afghans from a
Pakistani woman doctor who was married to an Iranian belonging to the
pro-Russian Tada Party. The woman had been kind to Sima at first but then
began making derogatory remarks about Afghans as dirty and stupid people.
Sima told her off and resigned. The hospital director prevailed on her to
stay, however, and eventually dismissed her nemesis.
Sima had dreamed of building a hospital for women ever since she entered
medical school. Not only a hospital, she had told Gafoo, but also an
orphanage to help the needy. He was supportive of the idea and told her she
should do it in Jaghori, where the people really needed her, while he
remained at his job in Kabul. They had it all planned: every Friday, one of
them would make the six-hour trip to visit the other.
Her dream now resurfaced in Quetta. Working in the refugee camps, Sima found
herself thinking: Why not set up a clinic staffed by Afghans specifically
for Afghan patients? She went to Inter-Church Aid with a proposal to fund a
clinic for Afghan women and children. A year and a half later, the ICA
agreed to give her the money.
To establish her clinic, Sima found help in the Revolutionary Afghan Women's
Association, or RAWA, which she had joined when she was in Kabul. RAWA
describes itself as "a social and political organization struggling for
peace, freedom, democracy, and women's rights in fundamentalism-blighted
Afghanistan." Unfortunately, RAWA's contribution to the clinic, some 5,100
rupees, was stolen by a man purporting to be a representative of RAWA.
Evidently a spy for the Russians, he disappeared with the money after
murdering a RAWA leader.
By this time, Sima had rented a house for the clinic and refurbished some
old equipment she had acquired from RAWA. But she still needed money. When
the man who had run off with the RAWA funds was arrested by Pakistani police
six months later, he implicated Sima in a scheme involving contraband
explosives. For some time thereafter, she had to appear at the police
station every three days to assure the police that she was not pro-Russian.
To complicate matters, the Islamists who domineered over the Quetta refugees
despised her pro-woman ideas and activities. They threatened to kill her.
Sima's family was so agitated by all of this that her brothers beat her up
again. They gave her two options: she should either remarry or go to the
United States so that her son could be educated there. But she stood her
An Englishman named Fred Innis proved to be her unanticipated benefactor.
When Sima informed him that she needed money, he offered to buy the
medicines she needed so she could start an out-patient clinic. A year later,
in March 1987, Sima opened the Malalai Hospital in Quetta. On her first day,
she had 110 patients, many of whom she had known at the Mission Hospital.
Malalai started with fourteen beds and an operating theater/delivery room,
along with a nurse-training center. Sima conducted a nursing course for a
year and then held a three-month women's first-aid course. This marked the
first time female nurses were trained in Pakistan. She expanded the clinic
one donation at a time, requesting a refrigerator from one donor, laboratory
equipment from another.
In 1989, Sima found herself in conflict with her colleagues in RAWA who, she
felt, were more interested in advancing a political agenda than in working
for the welfare the people. Specifically, they wanted to divert some of the
money earmarked for the hospital to the party. They also tried to steer her
away from international donors, warning her that "they belong to the CIA."
Many members of RAWA had had little education and were in the party not out
of conviction but because the men in their families were members. Sima, on
the other hand, prided herself in being independent. "More important to me,"
she says, "was equality among the people." That was what had attracted her
to Maoism even as a teenager. (Later, after the Tian'anmen massacres of
1989, she broke with Maoism completely.)
In 1987, Sima went to the United States to attend a conference on women in
development and women's rights, under the auspices of the United States
Information Service. In her absence, RAWA installed a man who was not a
doctor as medical director of Malalai Hospital. At the same time, RAWA
prevailed upon Sima to go to Islamabad and represent RAWA to the embassies
there. She refused, saying she was too rude by nature to be a diplomat.
Eventually, Sima's many disagreements with RAWA led to her resignation from
both the organization and Malalai Hospital. The entire hospital staff,
except for one Pakistani doctor and a RAWA nurse, resigned along with her.
Amid the fallout, RAWA tried to assume control of another hospital Sima was
building in Jaghori, but the donors stood them down and pledged their
support for Sima.
After Sima resigned from RAWA, she decided to strike out on her own. In
1989, she founded the Shuhada Clinic with thirteen beds in a rented house.
For funds, supplies, and equipment, the ICA again came to Sima's aid, as did
Church World Service, Norwegian Church Aid, Norwegian Refugee Center, and
the Refugee Council. A Swiss nun who came to Pakistan every year provided a
refrigerator, stoves, plates, and laboratory equipment.
The new Shuhada Clinic stood on land that once belonged to Gafoo and that
now belongs to Ali. The clinic was staffed by four doctors and a female
dentist. It possessed an operating theater, a delivery room, an X-ray
machine, and a laboratory. It trained female nurses and first-aid workers.
Most of the patients were refugees from Afghanistan, 65 percent of whom were
women. The clinic charged minimal fees and dispensed medicine for free.
As work on the Shuhada Clinic proceeded, Sima made furtive trips to Jaghori
to supervise the construction of a new hospital there. Twice in 1989 she was
attacked by pro-Khomeini ruffians who stole medicine and the clinic's
ambulance. They also beat up Sima's brother. The same forces attacked again
in 1991 while Sima was in the area; this time they ran off with cement and
steel. Because of attacks like these and fears for her security, the
hospital director eventually advised Sima to stop visiting the area.
"Instead of coming here and losing your life, it is better to be somewhere
else and helping your people," he told her.
In 1993, Sima's Shuhada Organization established an out-patient clinic in
Kabul, with funding from the ICA. The clinic had two female doctors, three
nurses, a pharmacist, and a watchman. A hospital in Hazara-populated Ghazni
Province was also rehabilitated at the time. Moreover, Sima established
girls' schools in Jaghori and Quetta. Ariana School in Quetta was the
community's first school for girls. In what had been a house, educated
refugee women whom Sima had recruited taught hundreds of girls in grades one
through eight; older women attended literacy classes and learned
Altogether, by 1994, Sima had established fourteen schools, seven
exclusively for girls. Her Shuhada Organization paid for the teachers'
salaries and books. Finding funding for her schools required constant
effort. "Nobody is interested in schools and education," she says. Pleading
for funds from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), she was told
that "education is not development." "Poultry production is development,"
they told her-and hence supported by the UNDP-but not education. She was
referred instead to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization (UNESCO), which did support literacy classes for women but not
primary schools for girls. "It is crazy," Sima says, "they are not trying to
understand the situation of Afghanistan. We lost everything, we don't have
any schools. We need schools for the future of our country. But there is no
money for schools."
Sima Samar's personal independence and refusal to observe purdah were
anathema to the region's rising religious fundamentalists. The same zealots
also assailed her schools for leading girls away from the cloistered ways of
the past. She hoped to motivate other Muslim women to think and act for
themselves, as she had done, but this was difficult. "Even the educated
ones," she says, "are fearful of the consequences."
On 15 February 1989, the last Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan. Tired
of the drain on Soviet human resources and with the growing unpopularity of
the war at home and the seemingly endless conflict with the mujahideen,
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ended his country's direct involvement in
Afghanistan. Three years later, following the collapse of the Soviet empire,
Russia stopped all funding for the ruling government in Kabul.
Despite the best efforts of the United Nations and the intercession of the
United States and other concerned nations, the struggle in Afghanistan
deepened. A shaky coalition of mujahideen groups eventually collapsed and
civil war began between rival leaders. Different provinces, and indeed
different sectors of Kabul itself, were now claimed by mujahideen groups
divided along tribal, religious, and ideological boundaries.
For all intents and purposes, anarchy ruled in Afghanistan. No single group
controlled the country even as money continued to flow to rival mujahideen
groups from Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere. In the meantime, the
civilians caught in the cross fire and huddling in refugee camps along the
borders continued to suffer from both neglect and the iron grip of Islamist
leaders, whose influence, channeled through groups such as the fast-rising
Taliban, was clearly on the rise. The worst victims were women, who could
not assert their rights in the face of rigid mullahs and nascent
Sima lamented that, with the end of the Cold War, "Afghanistan has lost its
importance. The Russians are gone." The United States Agency for
International Development (USAID), for example, which had been one of
Afghanistan's biggest donors, closed its programs for both Afghanistan and
In November 1993, Sima visited Kabul for a few days. It was a very sad
visit, she recalls, "I couldn't stop crying." She saw that in Kabul
University the windows had been burned, the doors were left open, and the
school was empty. It had been completely looted. "Nobody was in the streets.
It was fall and all the leaves were blowing around the streets, blowing from
here to there." She went to the museum and found it also looted and burned.
By 1994, Sima was running her schools and clinics by remote control. She had
an education supervisor to manage the schools and a doctor to run each
clinic. To complement the literacy courses in Jaghori, she added tailoring
and sewing centers for women. Another new undertaking was a sheep project:
she gave widows five sheep each and, at the end of the year, each widow gave
back one sheep and a kilo of wool as payment. The new sheep was then given
to another family.
At the time, Sima had little hope of living in her own country again. "It's
the security," she said. "At every stop there is a gunman asking for money."
The political situation had worsened because the government no longer
controlled the urban centers, as it had during the time of the puppet
rulers. By this time, four of Sima's brothers had migrated to the United
States. But Sima resolved to stay on, despite threats from the mullahs, who
had already killed a number of "upstart" women in Pakistan, and despite her
fear that Pakistan would expel the Afghan refugees, thus creating more havoc
and wiping out the small gains she and others had made in Quetta. She
continued to focus on her beleaguered projects and on providing for her son
Ali and for Tamanna, her adopted daughter (who is the child of her cousin).
There was little time to attend to her own problems, such as the mass she
discovered in her breast in 1994. Of some comfort was the fact that her
elder brother lived with his family nearby in Quetta; his wife, also a
medical doctor, assisted Sima in her work.
Sima Samar's fragmented nation and its turmoil troubled her greatly. Amid
the chaos and violence, more than schools and clinics and museums had been
lost. "Sometimes I think we have lost our identity," she said in 1994. "We
don't know who we are."
"Afghanistan." Far Eastern Economic Review Asia Yearbook, 1982-1994.
Darnton, John. "For Afghan Refugees, Life on the Moon." International Herald
Tribune, 12 August 1996.
Davis, Anthony. "To the Death." Asiaweek, 5 January 1994.
Dupree, Louis. Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973
Laber, Jeri, and Barnett R. Rubin. A Nation Is Dying. Chicago: Northwestern
University Press, 1988
Mousavi, Sayed Askar. The Hazaras of Afghanistan: A Historical, Cultural,
Economic, and Political Study. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1998.
Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central
Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Rubin, Barnett R. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and
Collapse in the International System. New Haven: Yale University Press,
Samar, Sima. Interview by James R. Rush. Tape recording. Ramon Magsaysay
Award Foundation, Manila, August 1994.
______. "A Woman Leader among Afghan Refugees." Paper Presented at Awardees'
Forum, Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila, 2 September 1994.
Shahrani, M. Nazif, and Robert L. Canfield, eds. Revolutions and Rebellions
in Afghanistan. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of
California at Berkeley, 1984.
Shuhada Organization. Annual Report: Working for a Better Tomorrow. Quetta,
Pakistan: Shuhada Organization, 1998.
Warnach, Sohail Akbar. "I Have Always Made My Own Decisions." Frontier Post,
12 April 1993.
Various interviews and correspondence with persons familiar with Sima Samar
and her work; other primary documents.