Nearly 40 years of war and insecurity have taken their toll on Afghan women, and access to education, health services and the rule of law remain severely limited. Sima Wali, who has died aged 66 from , a rare neurological disease, was a persistent voice in her countrywomen’s battle for better rights.
As president of , a nonprofit organisation that she established in the US in 1981 after fleeing Afghanistan for fear of communist persecution, Wali raised international awareness of the plight of Afghan women, and raised millions of dollars in funding for women-led Afghan organisations, in her own “jihad for social justice and peace”.
She was instrumental in the establishment of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in the post-Taliban Afghan government, when she was one of only three Afghan female invitees to the to decide their country’s future. There, Hamid Karzai was chosen to head Afghanistan’s interim government, while Wali’s lobbying for the ministry, an institution that continues to operate, paid off.
“In the future, we can make sure women play a major part, both in the governing positions as well as in the civil society,” she said. “We will not go away.”
Born to well-educated parents in Kandahar in southern , the birthplace of the Taliban, Sima spent her early years in India, where her banker father, Mohammad Wali, was posted. Her mother, Shafiqa (nee Sharifi), briefly oversaw a clothing factory in Kabul. Fighting to better the lives of Afghan women was in part a family tradition: her father’s first cousin was Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan’s reformist king of the 1920s and an early crusader for girls’ education.
Equal rights for women were enshrined in Afghan law as part of the 1964 constitution. “When I was growing up, female role models were active members of parliament, as well as doctors, judges and educators working alongside men,” Wali said.
She attended Kabul University, earning a BA in business administration in 1971. Wali then worked for the US embassy in Kabul as well as the Peace Corps organisation, before fleeing for the US in 1978, fearing persecution as a member of the ruling class after the then president, Mohammad Daoud Khan, was assassinated during a communist coup.
Following the Soviet invasion in 1979, both her parents were imprisoned by the local communist authorities in Kabul, as were thousands of opponents of the new regime. They later joined their daughter in the US.
In 1984 Wali gained an MA in international relations at before delving into the work that would define her.
was one of the key proxy battlegrounds of the cold war, where Red Army troops fought supported by the US. Moscow’s defeat in 1989 led to a brutal civil war and the rise of the Taliban, whose austere rule stripped women of basic rights, banning girls from going to school and forcing women to don the burqa when outside their homes. However, Wali was disdainful of the media focus on the head-to-toe covering – “that is the least of my problems,” she said. “The Taliban is using culture and religion to keep women down, 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.”
Unable to return to her native country, in the 80s Wali regularly travelled from the US to Pakistan to work with grassroots Afghan refugee groups, “providing training, networking and advocacy support to enable local NGOs to provide better services in their communities”. Later, during the Balkans war, she visited women in the refugee camps of former Yugoslavia, encouraging them to mobilise in the face of danger.
During the 90s she lobbied President Bill Clinton’s administration against the , urging Washington to not formally recognise the group as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.
She continued to call on the US to take responsibility for supplying the mujahideen with firepower, only to later abandon Afghanistan when it was engulfed in chaos and misery. Articulate and brimming with empathy, she became a regular fixture at events focused on Afghanistan, speaking at institutions worldwide.
In 2002, while addressing the UN on International Women’s Day, she spoke of how “the ferocity of attacks against Afghan women have been so severe and draconian that a new term, ‘gender apartheid’, was coined to describe the extent of the new kind of horror aimed directly at them”.
That same year she returned to her native country for the first time in more than two decades, training teachers who would educate girls, and helping to set up the women’s ministry. A vociferous opponent of Taliban ideology, she was on the receiving end of death threats from the Islamist group. In 2005, while visiting women in the east of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, she narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt by armed militants.
As the Nato-led war dragged on, a conflict still lingering after the withdrawal of foreign combat troops began three years ago, Wali began to view the US in similar terms as the Soviet Union, as another occupier, “instead of the friend and ally we want her to be”.
She received a , and the in 1999. She was also a founding member and vice-president of the , a consultant to the UN advocating for women’s rights worldwide. A documentary, , was made in 2004.
A brief marriage ended in divorce in 1987. Wali is survived by her two sisters, Sohaila and Soraya, and four brothers, Ahmad, Jahed, Zia and Abdul.
• Sima Wali, human rights campaigner, born 7 April 1951; died 22 September 2017