Sima Wali be­came one of the most vis­i­ble ac­tivists for the rights of Afghan women.

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­

Sima Wali, who fled her na­tive Afghanistan be­fore the 1979 Soviet in­va­sion and de­voted the rest of her life to aid­ing the women who re­mained be­hind through years of war, de­pri­va­tion and Tal­iban op­pres­sion, died Sept. 22 at her home in Falls Church, Va. She was 66.

The cause was mul­ti­ple sys­tem at­ro­phy, a de­gen­er­a­tive neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der, said her nephew, Suleiman Wali.

As leader of the Wash­ing­ton­based non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Refugee Women in De­vel­op­ment, Ms. Wali be­came one of the most vis­i­ble ac­tivists for the rights of Afghan women.

She spoke be­fore the United Na­tions and U.S. of­fi­cials, played a crit­i­cal role in the for­ma­tion of the Afghan Min­istry of Women’s Af­fairs af­ter the fall of the Is­lamist Tal­iban regime in 2001, and helped di­rect in­ter­na­tional fund­ing to the coun­try’s women, chil­dren and refugees.

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.”

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. She de­scribed women who com­mit­ted sui­cide by drink­ing bat­tery fluid be­cause they were so ill, hun­gry and op­pressed.

Ms. Wali as­signed some re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sit­u­a­tion to the United States, which sup­ported the Mus­lim guer­ril­las known as mu­jahideen in their fight against the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion.

“The United States helped cre­ate and sup­port the ‘ holy war­riors,’ ” she once said at a con­fer­ence hosted by the State of the World Fo­rum. “It’s played a ma­jor role in the Afghanistan sit­u­a­tion by ba­si­cally fi­nanc­ing the war, and it now has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to help fi­nance peace.”

Ms. Wali was one of the few women to par­tic­i­pate in U.N. peace talks on Afghanistan held in Bonn, Ger­many, in 2001 af­ter the U.S.-led in­va­sion dis­man­tled the Tal­iban regime. She helped se­cure the es­tab­lish­ment of the coun­try’s Women’s Af­fairs Min­istry.

The fol­low­ing year, she spoke be­fore the United Na­tions in honor of In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day, declar­ing that she had fought her “own ji­had for so­cial jus­tice and peace.”

“I have car­ried the shat­tered and muted voices of my Afghan sis­ters for al­most two decades,” she said. “Our voices went largely un­heeded un­til the grotesque arm of ter­ror­ism, first against us, in our home­land, ex­tended its arm to my coun­try of ex­ile here in the United States. Now per­haps there is hope. While Afghanistan re­mains at the epi­cen­ter . . . of world at­ten­tion, we are hope­ful to fi­nally em­bark on a process of peace­ful tran­si­tion to democ­racy.”

Sima Wali was born April 7, 1951, in Kan­da­har, where her fa­ther worked for the Afghan na­tional bank. Both par­ents, who be­longed to the Afghan aris­toc­racy, en­cour­aged her ed­u­ca­tion.

“When I was grow­ing up in Afghanistan, fe­male role mod­els were ac­tive mem­bers of par­lia­ment, as doc­tors, judges and ed­u­ca­tors work­ing along­side men,” she re­called years later.

Ms. Wali stud­ied busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion at Kabul Univer­sity, grad­u­at­ing in 1971. She worked for the Peace Corps mis­sion in Afghanistan be­fore flee­ing the coun­try.

She set­tled in Wash­ing­ton, where she re­ceived a master’s de­gree in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions from Amer­i­can Univer­sity in 1984.

A com­plete list of sur­vivors was not avail­able.

Ms. Wali’s hu­man­i­tar­ian work re­ceived recog­ni­tion from or­ga­ni­za­tions that in­cluded Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. Dur­ing one of her few re­turn trips to Afghanistan, in 2005, she nar­rowly es­caped be­ing taken hostage by in­sur­gents.

“We still have to fight for women to be rep­re­sented in ev­ery sec­tor of Afghan so­ci­ety,” Ms. Wali had said at the Bonn con­fer­ence. “We will not go away.”


Sima Wali, cen­ter, at a con­fer­ence in 2001 in Bonn, Ger­many, to bring peace to Afghanistan and re­con­sti­tute its govern­ment.

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