The girl ran down a dirt path in a remote corner of Afghanistan, her plastic sandals so worn they barely stayed on her feet. As she flip-flopped past a rickety farm tractor, a man at the wheel called out, “Where are you going?”
“Don’t you see?” the girl replied, pointing to a nearby building. “I’m going to school!”
“And what do you want to be?” the farmer called after her.
Turning her head without breaking stride, the girl hollered back, “I want to be Sima Samar!”
Never before had the young girl logged onto a laptop, dialed in a radio station or turned on a TV. Yet somehow, hundreds of miles from nowhere in a land that takes you back in time, she knew the name.
“I might not see her at all and she might not see me – even on the television – or hear my voice,” mused Dr. Sima Samar to her rapt audience Tuesday morning in the Deering High School library. “But somehow the words ‘human rights’ and ‘Sima’ connected to each other. So I, at least, achieved part of my objective.”
Twice in the last few years, I traveled to Afghanistan to embed with the Maine Army National Guard. Rarely during those travels did I even lay eyes on an Afghan woman, let alone formally meet one – wherever I went throughout the rural countryside, the stern-faced men kept them hidden.
That changed in a big way on Tuesday.
Samar, 57, came to Portland this week to keynote the 2014 Justice for Women Lecture Series, an annual event founded in 2011 by Catherine Lee of Lee International in cooperation with the University of Maine School of Law.
Samar’s message: Decades of oppression, discrimination and outright abuse masquerading as religion are gradually coming to an end for women in Afghanistan. But only through education, especially for young girls, will lasting equality truly take root.
Currently the chairwoman of the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, Samar is renowned the world over for her courage in staring down a male-dominated culture that more than once over the years threatened to kill her if she didn’t shut up.
Her dozens of honors range from a 2004 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to one of Ms. Magazine’s 10 Women of the Year in 2003. She’s also one of the central characters in the 2004 documentary “Daughters of Afghanistan,” in which she’s referred to as “a rare bead on the world’s scanty string of humanitarians.”
Thanks in large part to Lee, Samar’s visit here is a whirlwind: In addition to a lecture Tuesday evening at the University of Southern Maine, she highlighted a community gathering at USM on Monday and will do the same Wednesday at the law school.
But it was Samar’s appearance at Deering High – first with a small group in the library followed by a larger assembly in the school auditorium – that best echoed her lifelong mantra: “I see education as the key for changing a society. I see education as the key for personal empowerment. I see education as the key to build the peace.”
She told the teenagers, many from immigrant families, how lucky she was that her father allowed her to enroll at Kabul University in the late 1970s to study medicine. How luck smiled on her again when she married a physics professor at the university who not only accepted Samar’s entry into the overwhelmingly male-dominated academic environment, but actively supported it.
Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and suddenly her husband was gone – caught up in a nighttime sweep of hundreds of intellectuals, never seen or heard from again.
Undeterred, Samar got her medical degree in 1982 and tried to practice medicine in her rural home province of Ghazni, in central Afghanistan. It proved impossible under the circumstances; within two years, she and her young son took refuge in Pakistan.
There, still in her 20s, Samar singlehandedly opened a hospital for Afghan refugees. She went on to form the Shuhuda Organization, a nonprofit dedicated to the betterment of Afghan women and children that today boasts four clinics and three hospitals throughout Afghanistan, 55 schools for boys and girls in Afghanistan, and three schools for Afghan refugee children in Pakistan.
Samar’s 17-year, self-imposed exile from Afghanistan ended shortly after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But her battle for equal rights – she also has served as a United Nations special envoy to Sudan – goes on.
“Do you ever feel like giving up?” asked Halima Noor, 16, a Deering High sophomore who came to the United States from Somalia when she was 7. “Did you ever feel like, ‘This is too much – I can’t handle it?’ Did you ever feel like that?”
“Actually not,” Samar replied with a smile, although she admitted to many a time when “you don’t know for whom you should fight first. (But) even if I could bring some kind of justice or support to one of the 1,000 cases, then I have done what I could do.”
Thanks in no small part to her, Samar’s homeland has come a long way since she returned 12 years ago. Slowly but surely, she sees Afghan women pushing back against the male “protection” that ranges from still oppressive in the more remote villages to stubbornly insidious in even the capital of Kabul.
Samar spoke of one television program, called “Afghan Star,” in which young singers compete before judges. The female contestants are typically harassed and ridiculed to the point where they depart early, but on one show a girl hung in to rave reviews from the judges.
The problem was, at least one male judge wasn’t raving about her singing.
“I really respect her,” he told the viewing audience. “She’s a very good girl. I haven’t seen her scarf falling from her head.”
Samar had no problem with the scarf – as she said, it was the girl’s choice whether, or how, to wear it. But the patronizing judge?
“I was thinking, ‘How does this man give himself the right to comment on a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ woman because of her scarf?” she recalled. “Nobody is there to tell this man, ‘You should wear jeans in order to be a good man . . . or you should wear a tie.’ Men everywhere get the right to comment on our clothes – what we wear, how long our dress is or how short is our dress. But the women are not commenting on the men’s dress.”
Throughout the auditorium, young female heads nodded. It reminded me of that story about the little girl in the tattered sandals – Samar heard about her only after the farmer and his wife traveled all the way to Kabul to share the tale in a five-minute conversation.
“Tell me,” I asked Halima Noor as she prepared to go back to class. “What was it like to actually meet Dr. Samar?”
“It was an honor,” said a wide-eyed Halima. “It felt so amazing. She did so much for women’s rights, and for me to sit here and think, ‘Wow, I can do that too one day. I can be like Dr. Sima Samar!’ ”
Two very different young women? No doubt.
Two very different schools? That too.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: