Sima Wali, who fled the Soviet-backed coup in Afghanistan in 1978 to wage what she called a “jihad for peace and equality” by women against “gender apartheid” imposed by the Communists and then by the Taliban, died on Sept. 22 at her home in Falls Church, Va. She was 66, The New York Times reports:
Ms. Wali had worked for the American Embassy and the Peace Corps in Afghanistan in her 20s before the 1978 coup. She then settled in Washington, where she became a United States citizen and organized Refugee Women in Development, an advocacy group, now dissolved, that sought to empower victims of war and genocide.
She further championed the rights of Afghan women after the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to rout the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalists whom Washington accused of providing a haven for the terrorists who had masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks. With the formation of a new Afghan government under United Nations auspices, Ms. Wali successfully lobbied to establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul, the country’s capital.
The late Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and Democratic congressman from California, once lauded her for “pioneering culturally specific approaches in assisting refugee women to resist trauma and violence,” The Washington Post adds:
After the Taliban, which seized power in 1996, drew international condemnation for its brutal subjugation of women, Ms. Wali often acted as a cultural interpreter for Westerners seeking to understand the perils facing the country. She defended Islam, blaming the Taliban’s violation of women’s rights on a grotesque distortion of the faith.
“Everybody is talking about the burqa,” she told Agence France-Presse in 2001, referring to the head-to-toe veil the Taliban forced women to wear. “That is the least of my problems,” she said, listing concerns that included access to medical care, education and work.
When she visited Afghanistan in 2005 under a program financed by the National Endowment for Democracy, Ms. Wali barely escaped being taken hostage near the Pakistani border by what she described as a mob of armed Taliban insurgents and other fundamentalists. Still, she insisted that the problem in Afghanistan was not Islam but the Taliban, The Times adds.
“The Taliban is using culture and religion to keep women down,” she said in 1998 at a seminar for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, “but there is nothing in my religion that teaches keeping women at home, not educating them, starving them and withholding medical treatment from them so they die.”
She added, “Islam teaches us to care for and protect women.”