“They want me to come to Kabul directly,” Dr. Sima Simar told a Toronto audience last week, “but I don’t have my clothes, so if I go directly, I might be killed.”

When she said this, Dr. Simar — Afghanistan’s new Deputy Prime Minister in charge of women’s issues — had neither her head nor her face covered. In one sentence, she made it clear that things have not changed as much as it might at first seem for women in Afghanistan.

Simar was speaking as part of a cross-Canada tour that was sponsored by Rights & Democracy, which had just honoured her with its John Humphrey Freedom Award. While she was in Canada, she found out that she was one of two women appointed to a six-month provisional government made up of twenty-nine people.

Through a series of anecdotes about her own life, Simar quietly told the audience in Toronto what life was like for the Afghan people in general, and for women in particular. With stunning understatement, she outlined modern Afghan history.

“The Afghan people are the victims of the Cold War,” she said. “The U.S. supported the fundamentalists against the Soviets, and I think that was a mistake. Afghan women warned that what was happening with the Taliban and terrorism would not long stay within Afghanistan’s borders. But our warnings were ignored. The tragedies of September 11 occurred. And now the U.S. has paid a terrible price and the Afghan people are paying for a crime that they did not commit.”

Sima Simar seemed uncomfortable with her new political position. She explained that, when she went to high school, the students with the highest marks went to medical school. “I really wanted to be an engineer,” she said, “but when I got the highest marks I decided to become a doctor, because if I didn’t, everyone would say that women were afraid to be doctors. Now I accept the position in the government for the same reason.”

Her top priorities for the government are security and education. Simar has little confidence in the Northern Alliance. When it was in power a few years ago, women were being raped and beaten. The Taliban promised to protect women. “The choice of women was to be raped or to be prisoners in their own homes.”

“In 1996, I was going with a friend on a bus through Kandahar. We both wore the burka (the head-to-toe covering women were forced to wear). The Taliban stopped the bus to ask why we were sitting behind the driver. We should sit in back of the bus and the driver was instructed not to speak to us. This was the mentality under the Taliban.”

She won the John Humphrey Freedom Award because of her courageous work in establishing a number of hospitals and schools for girls throughout Afghanistan, and in Pakistan refugee camps. Through great effort and a deft ability to get around authority, Simar is now running four hospitals and forty-five schools in her homeland. Even under the Taliban she was able to continue a high school for girls because of strong community support for the school.

“Students walked for three hours to go to school and sit on a mat. They didn’t have enough to eat, but still they came to school.”

She drew a picture of life under previous regimes, as well as under the Taliban. Simar worked in a Kabul hospital under the Russian regime. A patient of hers had hepatitis, but the medical staff was unable to determine what type because the hospital lacked the equipment. “A Russian consultant decreed that my patient had Hepatitis B. I told him this is not a matter of decree, but a matter of science, and without microscopes there is no way to tell. ‘Just write down Hepatitis B,’ he told me.”

Later, Simar moved to Pakistan, where she began her work in the refugee camps. “They started building fundamentalist schools in the refugee camps. There was nothing in the camps, no education, no food, and no shelter. The fundamentalist schools provided all three so parents sent their sons to these religious schools.”

Nevertheless, with the help of some foreign aid, she was able to establish some rudimentary hospitals there. “We had a tent for the hospital and a big building for the religious school.”

Working with Western-based non-governmental organizations posed its own problems. A clinic she ran could only be open from nine in the morning to two in the afternoon. These hours didn’t work so well for women — who could not give birth according to the timetable.

Afghan women met in Bonn, Germany last month to develop a series of demands for the inclusion of women in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. They were reportedly “delighted,” with the news that Simar had just been appointment as Deputy Prime Minister.

But Sima Simar pointed out: “Two women are not enough.” The tasks of reconstruction are overwhelming. “Women around the world fought to have women in the government. I hope when Afghanistan is off the front pages, you will not forget us.”

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of rabble.ca , wrote our advice column auntie.com and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....