BY Eoin Kelleher
DR Sima Samar faces almost daily threats of intimidation, violence and death for her work as a doctor and human rights activist in Afghanistan. In a country riven by rivalries and hatreds, where women were once hidden away and treated almost like property, Dr Samar’s devotion to improving the lives of women and girls is a rare flicker of hope in a land which has seen little but war for the past 30 years.
Dr Samar made the long journey from Kabul to Tipperary last week to be honoured with the 2010 Tipperary International Peace Award, hosted by Martin Quinn in Ballykisteen Hotel.
Ambassadors from nearly a dozen countries, representatives of the three branches of the Defence Forces, An Garda Siochana, aid organisations, the Special Olympics, past and present Ministers of State, TDs, Councillors, Clergy, and musicians, all gave Dr Samar a rousing standing ovation after hearing of her extraordinary life story, quietly carrying on in the face of terrorist threats, while often voicing uncomfortable truths to those in power. Many of Dr Samar’s fiercest enemies are tribal warlords and politicians in the Western-backed Karzai government. Only in the last few weeks, one of her friends was kidnapped, while others working with her have been attacked on the streets, for the ‘crime’ of educating and providing medicine to girls and women.
The Tipperary Peace Convention 2011 committee members; Chairman Joe Quinn, Cllr Mary Swords, Guy Jones, John Shanahan, Caroline Brahan, and Secretary Martin Quinn, organised this year’s Peace Convention in recognition of the daily battle which Dr Samar and others like her face in Afghanistan. Thriving since 1983, past recipients of the Tipperary Peace Award include Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, President Bill Clinton and Senator George Mitchell.
A weekend long conference of events and seminars include guest speakers Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, Former President of the Law Reform Commission, Senator David Norris, and Susan McKay, Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland. This year’s theme is ‘How can an equal role for women in society be achieved across nations?’
Host Mr Martin Quinn said messages of congratulations were extended to Dr Sima Samar by President Mary McAleese, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and US Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.
Thurles born Minister of State Fergus O’Dowd, paid tribute to the organisers and Dr Samar. “Dr Samar joins a distinguished list of Peace Award recipients. Each of these honorees has played a unique role in the pursuit of the cause of peace. In rewarding this honour to Dr Samar, the Tipperary Awards Peace Convention has highlighted her extraordinary list of achievements, and her continuing work toward improving the human rights and dignity of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“Her personal life has not been without tragedy and challenge,” added Deputy O’Dowd, “but it must be said that her personal experience has clearly inspired her work. to secure for others the respect, dignity and justice that she and her family were denied.” Dr Samar spent 17 years in exile in Pakistan, where she established a network for providing much needed medical care to Afghan refugees. “I am strongly committed to upholding the values attached to the Tipperary International Peace Award, and in having them observed throughout my life,” said Dr Samar. “This prestigious award will therefore effectively inspire Afghan women to enhance their commitment towards peace building and towards the elimination of injustice and discrimination.”
‘We Were All in Prison’
Before accepting her award, Dr Samar spoke to the Tipperary Star about the role of Islam, Women, Pakistan, and politics in Afghanistan, and her hopes for the future. “I think religion has to play more a role for peace than violence,” she says. “Islam is quite a peaceful religion. Islam advises people to respect human rights - it’s very clear - but what’s sad is when religion gets politicised and used against the will of the people. Religion should not be used politically, because it’s something between you and your God. It’s not a tool to be used for aggression.” Western countries like Ireland can help by investing in education. “Education is a long term project, but it is the only tool that can change the mentality of the people, and to change the society slowly. Education can change the mentality of both men and women. “If we had educated people, the war in Afghanistan would not have been so long and aggressive. Lack of education puts people into a position where they can be misused by the politicians.”
While there has been some recent rowing back on women’s rights - a new law called the Shiite Personal Status Law was passed in 2009 which restricts women from leaving their homes - life is still immeasurably better than under the cruel regime of the Taliban, when women were routinely put to death for minor religious infractions.
“It’s a lot better,” says Dr Samar. “There’s no doubt. Under the Taliban, we practically had no life. We were all in prison. All the women were under house arrest. No access to education, no access to work, or movement. Now, women have the right to a better education and access to healthcare, and politics.” In relation to the controversial 2009 law, Dr Samar says emphatically: “We are trying to change that law, in order to make it more friendly towards women. It was unfortunately, a very bad law.”
Will the Taliban change their ways? “I don’t think they’ll change. We don’t see a lot of changes in their mentality. If you look at the everyday aggressive attacks they are making, in Afghanistan and Pakistan - it’s very clear that they will not very easily give up their ideas.”
Relations with next-door neighbour Pakistan are fraught, adds Dr Samar. “Finding Bin Laden in Pakistan is one good proof that shows that - I don’t know if it’s all the government or an element in the government - that there is support for Al Qaeda and fundamentalism.”
However, across the Muslim world, people are calling for change. The ‘Arab Spring’ is a positive development, says Dr Samar. “I hope that the overall standing up of the people, will not be sabotaged by fundamentalist groups. That’s the only fear that I have. But I believe that it is a change, and I hope it will be a particularly positive change. And in getting rid of those dictators; people have to have the right to choose their leadership.”
And the future? “I am optimistic,” Dr Samar says. “If you focus on women’s issues, women have always been a peaceful element in Asian countries. And that can be good for the transition from aggression to peace. But we need a lot of political support to do that. I think one of the issues that I would like to see from the President (Hamid Karzai), is the political will for the support of women’s rights in the country, and that is not very strong.”