Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan also held an exhibit in the Women's Centre Feb. 4-8.
Katy Anderson/the Gauntlet

Women fighting for Afghan women

The struggle to educate women in Afghanistan

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As a woman who struggled against the patriarchal chains of the Taliban regime, Dr. Sima Samar recounted captivating stories of her efforts to Calgarians Thu., Jan. 31 as part of international development week.

The event, presented by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, aimed to raise awareness and funds towards educational programs for Afghan women and girls.

"Education is a basic human right we all have to respect," said Samar, in front of the sold-out crowd at the University of Calgary's Rozsa Centre.

Samar is a leading authority on healthcare and education for Afghan ladies. She is currently the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission chairwoman, which monitors and investigates human rights abuses across the country. Samar was one of two female officials elected to be part of cabinet in the Afghanistan interim administration. She was also the founder of the Shuhada Organization, which provides education and healthcare programs for Afghan women and girls.

"I am not an extraordinary woman," said Samar, who was greeted with a standing ovation both when she approached and left the podium. "I just did what I needed to do and I think anyone can do it."

Samar spoke alongside Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong, who has covered stories about women in zones of conflict all over the world. Armstrong's eyewitness reports have earned her many awards including the Amnesty International media award.

"As a journalist, I usually don't cover politicians and generals," said Armstrong. "I usually cover the blameless people, the people without a voice, like the women and children in Afghanistan."

During Armstrong's stay in Afghanistan last week, she saw conditions drastically improving. Garbage is starting to be cleaned up off the streets and houses are beginning to be rebuilt. But Armstrong explained she believes societal rules must also be rebuilt before Afgh- anistan can function wholly.

"Tribal laws have not changed," said Armstrong. "They need to, but they haven't."

The tribal laws to which Armstrong referred make it extremely difficult for women and children to receive any education. As a result, many women are illiterate and put in the vulnerable position of being com- pletely dependent on their husbands or male family members.

"I really don't like when people put [the word] vulnerable in front of women, because we're not vulnerable," said Samar. "We're capable of doing many things, we've just been put in that position."

Samar's battle has not come without great personal costs. Her husband, a university professor, was alledgedly taken from their home by the Russian government and Samar has not heard from him since. Earlier this month, Samar was at the upscale Serena Hotel in Kabul when the Taliban attacked and killed seven people.

Armstrong revered Samar for her tireless fight to win basic human rights for Afghan women. She illustrated Samar's bravery against the Taliban regime by sharing a story of when Samar received death threats to stop the operation of her elementary schools.

"'Go ahead and arrest me'," said Armstrong, recalling what Samar responded to the threat. "'When you kill me, tell them my crime. I was giving paper and pen to the girls'."

Another severely contentious stand Samar has taken against the Taliban regime is her support for family planning.

"If we do not control our family planning, we cannot do anything," said Samar. "We cannot be a good politician, a good teacher, not even a good clerk."

Armstrong pointed out a fundamental misconception many Canadians have about the war in Afghanistan.

"[Canada] did not invade Afghanistan," said Armstrong. "We were asked by the Afghan government, sanctioned by the United Nations, the Afghans want us there."

Samar echoed Armstrong's sentiments for the need of international aid in Afghanistan. "We still need a lot of support, politically, militarily and economically, in order to make democracy real for Afghanistan," she said. "Right now, it's just a nice word we're using."