- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan When delegations of tribal leaders file in to greet Dr. Sima Samar, they offer the deference due a government minister one who just may be the most powerful woman in Afghanistan.

But it's a lonely position: Not one woman could be found among the processions held on a recent morning to recite glowing odes to Dr. Samar, Afghanistan's first minister of women's affairs. The men celebrated her arrival but left their wives and daughters home.

Among the daunting challenges that Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai will face in the next few months from spending international donors' funds wisely to strengthening law and order in a still-fractious country is getting women back into public life after years of having been barred from it.

And Mr. Karzai may have to work hard to make sure Dr. Samar internationally renowned for her work in education, health, and human rights stays in the picture.

"I'll see how positive I can be in this government. If I can't do much, I won't stay," Dr. Samar said in her first appointment of the day, which will soon be filled with tribal leaders from various parts of Afghanistan.

When Afghanistan's interim government was installed in December, there was no question that Dr. Samar deserved to be one of the two women in the Cabinet, as well as a deputy prime minister the only woman holding the position. Dr. Samar, a physician, opened four hospitals, 10 clinics and 48 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan often in defiance of the Taliban's ban on women holding jobs or girls attending school.

In a recent interview, however, she said she still had not been assigned an appropriate building to house her ministry. And, concerned that women's issues could be given only token treatment by the government, she says she will not stay in the Cabinet if she cannot make an impact.

Four other government ministers all of them Afghan professionals who returned home after living abroad express similar doubts about whether they will continue in their posts past the mandate of the interim government, which ends in June.

The first half-year is a test not just for international donors who recently pledged $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan this year but also for a class of educated Afghans hoping for a government that is serious about peace and reconstruction.

For Dr. Samar, that means setting up shop in a proper office. She has been offered a section of the Ministry of Social Affairs, she said, but insisted that she would not be stuck in the corner of someone else's office.

Though the idea of a government ministry for women may sound odd to Westerners, it is in part a recognition that some of the country's most urgent needs boil down to women's needs. Only about 10 percent of Afghan women are literate compared with 25 percent of men.

Although there are an estimated 1 million widows in Afghanistan, which has a population of 20 million, few are able to work to provide for their families.

Before the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, about 30 percent of the nation's civil servants and 70 percent of its teachers were women. Now, it is hard to find a woman working in any government office, save Dr. Samar and Health Minister Suhaila Siddiqi, another physician who shares similar credentials. Both women were tolerated by Taliban officials, who often sent their wives to them for treatment.

Dr. Samar's concern is that it might be difficult to find many others like her and the health minister. Untold numbers of educated women fled the country, not just during the oppressive Taliban regime, but in the years before. "I'm still looking to see who is around so that I can build a staff," she said. "You can't do everything on your own."

After finishing school here in 1982, she, too, fled the violence between the mujahideen and the Soviet forces, moving to Pakistan.

There, in Quetta, she founded in 1989 her first hospital for women, many of them Afghan refugees ignored by Pakistani authorities. It later expanded into the Shuhada Organization that built into a network of clinics and schools on both sides of the border.

Though her work and outspokenness sometimes brought her death threats, she carried on with the same aplomb as she does as the only woman in a room full of male tribal leaders. Her priorities include organizing literacy classes, returning skilled women to the work force, and getting homeless women into shelters. She also wants to have a political voice.

Local and international women's groups, as well as the United Nations, say that when the loya jirga, or national council, is formed at the end of the six-month interim period, 30 percent of the 700 seats should go to women. After all, in 1977, when she was a student here, women made up 15 percent of the loya jirga.

But this city is much changed since then.

In the Kabul of 20 years ago, as she remembers it, young men rarely wore beards and perhaps 5 percent of women wore burkas. Though neither is now required, most men continue to go bearded and it is almost impossible to find an Afghan woman who does not wear the loose garment that covers the body and has a mesh screen for the eyes and nose.

Though other women have argued that the burka must come off if women are to move out of the shadow, Dr. Samar says this is a minor part of the problem.

"This is not an important issue," she said, readjusting her own kerchief for a new flock of well-wishers. "It's not the law that requires this, but the mentality is not ready yet. We have to provide jobs for women."

Seeing more than a tiny minority of women at work again, she hopes, will change minds. That plus stability, security and prosperity all desperately wanted here, and all in as short supply as office space.

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