A former minister of women's affairs describes Afghanistan's historical transformations.


A former minister of women's affairs describes Afghanistan's historical transformations

Sima Samar, a former minister of women's affairs in Afghanistan, is interviewed by NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. In the four-part PBS documentary "Afghanistan: The Wounded Land," she is one of the voices heard.

Since American troops withdrew from Afghanistan about a year ago, the Taliban now rule the nation. Furthermore, for many, the discussion of the nation's current state begins with the September 11 attacks and the ensuing American invasion of that year. But the country's current dilemma has even older origins.

The growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan started in the late 1960s when the youth in Kabul dreamed of a socialist revolution and Kabul's elite adopted a Western way of life.

RASCOE: Following that revolution, a decade-long Soviet occupation and communist rule followed. The nation was the setting for a proxy conflict between the United States and the former Soviet Union, which led to the funding of a civil war, the Taliban's founding, and the establishment of al-Qaida. "Afghanistan: The Wounded Land," a new four-part PBS documentary series that premieres today, brings all of this history to life with a wealth of archive footage. Sima Samar, a human rights activist and former minister of women's affairs for Afghanistan, joins us today. Sima is a participant in the series. Welcome.

SAMAR, SIMA: I sincerely appreciate it.

RASCOE: You lived in an Afghanistan that was incredibly different as a child and medical school student. Can you describe Afghanistan and what you believed would happen to your life there?

SAMAR: Yes. Afghanistan was a small, impoverished nation, but there were never any fanatics or fundamentalists of this calibre there. So when I was younger, I attended a coeducational school. I'm 66 years old now. Therefore, suppose that in Helmand, an extremely traditional region where girls are currently prohibited from attending school, there was coeducation for boys and girls 60 years ago.

RASCOE: You mentioned in the documentary—which I found to be quite interesting—that both the Soviets and the mujahedeen who opposed the Soviets exploited women as a political instrument during the Soviet occupation. Can you provide us with some background on that?

SAMAR: Yes, I believe the Soviets attempted to utilise the slogan "women cannot be free" when they arrived. And they preferred that women appear more frequently on stage to actually develop their potential. subsequently attempted to impose the women's literacy course via force. The populace opposed it as it moved to the conservative neighbourhoods. The mujahedeen, however, were adamantly opposed to women participating in any capacity. Education received no attention, despite my personal opinion that destroying a country's educational system is the surest way to do it.

RASCOE: You ultimately relocated to Pakistan from Afghanistan. How challenging was that choice for you?

SAMAR: Well, I had to leave Kabul for safety, so that made things really difficult. As a result, I spent 17 years as a refugee in Pakistan. Then, in Pakistan, I began working on some additional initiatives, like managing clinics for kids and women. Then I created a school for girls, specifically refugee girls. What I actually did was open the boys' school first. I then replied, "If you don't send your daughters, then I'm not going to support solely the boys’ schools," after realising that the people were interested.

RASCOE: WOW.  That was a method of obtaining the…


RASCOE: To persuade them to carry it out, yes. 

SAMAR: To Convince Them

RASCOE: Wow, to convince them. A new government was established in Afghanistan after American forces drove out the Taliban. You're starting from scratch after being appointed minister of women's affairs. You claimed that you didn't even have a destroyed office to return to. The office was vacant. So where do you even begin with that?

RASCOE: My goodness. Run this bureau from there with that, they then say.

SAMAR: Undoubtedly.


SAMAR: However, I encountered a lot of opposition because I demanded justice, accountability, and an end to the culture of impunity. People who worked in the government didn't like that at all.

RASCOE: What comes to mind when you witness the Taliban's comeback, girls being barred from secondary schools, women being excluded from positions of authority, and all of these extremely stringent laws about women being reinstated?

SAMAR: Assume that there is a non-violent response to all of this tyranny from the females who are currently forbidden from leaving their homes or continuing their education, but who know they will be punished because of the education they received. After 20 years, despite all of our sacrifices, we turned everything over to the Taliban.

RASCOE: During the course of the series, you once issued a pretty stern warning. We may even have a video of it.

SAMAR: None of the individuals on the plane who killed more than 3,000 people in New York by committing suicide was Afghan. They were all not Afghan. They have all lived in Afghanistan. And why did that occur? Afghanistan was overlooked, thus. There is also no assurance that it won't occur if Afghanistan is overlooked and left alone once more.

RASCOE: Do you believe that the world community has learned the lesson from decades ago to never forget Afghanistan?

SAMAR: We saw the justifications for leaving Afghanistan in the 1990s. I'm worried that Afghanistan will once again become a haven for violent extremist and terrorist groups to organise. The Taliban won't be able to keep it under control, in my opinion.

RASCOE: That is Sima Samar, a former minister for women's issues in Afghanistan. In the four-part PBS documentary "Afghanistan: The Wounded Land," she is one of the voices heard. We appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today.

SAMAR: I'm grateful.

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