‘It’s not just Afghanistan, it’s everywhere’: Afghan advocate tells Portland students of women’s struggle for visibility

Posted March 18, 2014, at 3:13 p.m.
Last modified March 18, 2014, at 5:40 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Dr. Sima Samar came to Portland with gravitas as a highly visible human rights activist. But that status became all the more impressive to her Tuesday morning audience at Deering High School when Samar explained how difficult it is for women in her native Afghanistan to be visible at all.

Samar is headlining a series of events over three days in the city as part of the University of Maine School of Law’s Justice for Women Lecture Series. Although oppression of women can be glaring in her home region, Samar said on Tuesday that women’s rights must still be defended vigilantly around the world and in the United States.

“It’s not just Afghanistan, it’s everywhere,” she told the crowded high school auditorium. “When it comes to women, we’re expected to conform to tradition, we’re expected to dress a certain way.”

Samar told the students about an American United Nations official working in the Middle East after Russia pulled its army out of Afghanistan in 1989. The man said he wasn’t spearheading any new programs geared toward Afghan women, and upon questioning by Samar, admitted he hadn’t seen any women in his trips to Logar Province to organize.

“I said, ‘Well, do you think that all those heroes who drove out the Russians were all dropped from the sky? No. They have mothers,’” she recalled.

That anecdote echoed one by Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, who moderated the high school forum and twice traveled to Afghanistan as a journalist embedded with Maine soldiers. Nemitz said despite having spent weeks in the country, Samar represented the first Afghan woman he ever met.

Local women were carefully kept out of public view in the villages he visited with the American troops, Nemitz said.

Samar emerged from that environment to establish Afghanistan’s first ever cabinet-level Ministry of Women’s Affairs, chair the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and found an organization that oversees dozens of schools and health care facilities for women and children.

She was one of the central figures in a 2004 documentary, “Daughters of Afghanistan,” and that same year was given a prestigious Profile In Courage Award by a John F. Kennedy Library Foundation committee.

In addition to her Deering High School appearance, Samar on Tuesday was scheduled to visit the Portland-based Council on International Educational Exchange and deliver an evening lecture at the University of Southern Maine.

If Samar could reach such heights starting from near invisibility in a culture where girls are often kept out of schools, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan told the Deering audience Tuesday, there’s no telling how successful city teens can be starting with free access to public education and other advantages.

Brennan, who awarded Samar a ceremonial key to the city Tuesday morning, noted that both of his sons went to Deering, and one of them graduated alongside current movie star Anna Kendrick in 2003.

“We accept the fact in the United States that we have public education,” Brennan said. “We don’t know what it’s like to have underground education or no education at all.”

Said Deering student Halima Noor: “She fought for her education and some people in America take it for granted. She fought for her education, she risked her life and she got where she wanted to be.”