Advertisement

Sima Wali, Afghan refugee who battled 'gender apartheid' in her homeland, dies at 66

Sima Wali, Afghan refugee who battled 'gender apartheid' in her homeland, dies at 66
Sima Wali (right) talks with actress Glenn Close at the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in New York City in 1999. (Lou Manna)

Buildings in ruins, cars buried under fallen masonry — the scars of warfare seemed to touch every corner of the landscape as Sima Wali stared silently at her homeland.

An exile since 1978, it had been 24 years since Wali had fled Afghanistan. And as her car bounced along a broken highway in Kabul, she struggled to comprehend the level of destruction.

Advertisement

"Good god," a companion murmured.

An Afghan human rights fighter and one of the loudest voices against what she called the "gender apartheid" leveled first by the communists and then by the Taliban, Wali spent decades in the United States pushing for reforms for women in Afghanistan and those — like herself — who lived life as a refugee.

And though the scene was sobering when she returned for the first time in 2002 with a pair of documentary filmmakers, Wali said she retained faith in the ability of her fellow Afghans to overcome even the most crushing forms of oppression.

"The Afghan spirit is indomitable, especially the women," she told listeners during a seminar on Afghanistan during her 2002 trip, which was chronicled in the documentary "The Woman in Exile Returns: The Sima Wali Story."

Soft-spoken yet hard-charging, Wali was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease called multiple system atrophy soon after her last visit to Afghanistan in 2005. She died Sept. 22 at her home in Falls Church, Va., her nephew Suleiman Wali said. She was 66.

Sima Wali, left, organizer of the Afghan Women's Summit for Democracy in Brussels in 2001, speaks. At right is an Afghan woman who wished to remain anonymous.
Sima Wali, left, organizer of the Afghan Women's Summit for Democracy in Brussels in 2001, speaks. At right is an Afghan woman who wished to remain anonymous. (Thierry Charlier)

Wali was one of three women who served as a delegate at the 2001 U.N.-organized summit in Bonn, Germany, at which a new Afghan government was being formed. Though skeptics viewed their inclusion as window dressing in a country that had devalued women for so long, Wali successfully pushed for the creation of a Ministry of Women's Affairs in the new administration and then was asked to lead the ministry. She declined the offer in order to focus on her international activism.

Born April 7, 1951, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Wali spent her childhood in India, where her father worked as a banker. She earned a degree in business administration from Kabul University and worked at the American Embassy and the Peace Corps but then fled at her parents' urging to the United States after a 1978 communist coup. A year later, the Soviets invaded.

Wali became a U.S. citizen, earned a master's degree at American University in Washington and reunited with her parents, who had been jailed after the Soviet occupation.

If the grinding, decadelong Soviet occupation had eroded what gains women had made in Afghanistan, their fate became all the more desperate under the Taliban.

Wali spoke out where she could, raised money and visited refugee camps along the Pakistan border, trying to teach those who'd fled Afghanistan how to organize and empower themselves.

She blamed outside forces for the years of war and repressive leadership that left women with fewer and fewer rights, and recalled the brighter times of her youth when she said women enjoyed greater freedoms and ethnic divisions were unheard of. More so than her fellow human rights activists, she blamed the United States for supporting the guerrilla fighters during the Soviet war and then abandoning the country when the Soviets finally withdrew. She also fought to prevent the U.S. from formally recognizing the Taliban government in the years before 9/11.

"I still hear their cries," she wrote about Afghan women in the introduction to "Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story," the 2009 book written by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould. "During this entire time I carried with me their pleading voices and ultimately their screams, while the world looked away."

In 1981, Wali established Refugee Women in Development, a group that assisted refugees in the U.S., and helped launch feminist think tank Sisterhood Is Global Institute. She spoke before Congress and the United Nations and addressed groups such as the Los Angeles-based Feminist Majority Foundation. She was awarded the Amnesty International Ginetta Sagan Award in 1999 and the Gloria Steinem Women of Vision Award in 1989.

In her last trip to Afghanistan in 2005, Wali was nearly taken hostage by Taliban and Al Qaeda fundamentalists while visiting Jalalabad, a town along the Pakistan border. In a first-person account published in the Huffington Post, she described hearing gunfire and explosions outside the governor's compound where she was staying and then hiding in a darkened garden as the mob broke through the palace gates.

Advertisement

To escape, Wali and others scaled walls and dashed across a field to a gardener's house, where a woman took them in and offered them food. She said she wore a bedsheet in a "desperate attempt to render myself invisible." A burka, she said, would have come in handy.

When an airlift was hurriedly arranged to ferry out the governor and other government officials, Wali joined a convoy and made it to the waiting plane.

"Many Afghans came to our aid unconditionally even though it put them at great risk," she wrote. "But as the world has come to see in vivid terms, Afghan bravery cannot alone stop the tide of barbaric extremism."

Afflicted with a crippling disease that robbed her of the ability to walk and, finally, to talk, she used an alphabet board to communicate, before even that limited ability disappeared. Her nephew said it was a cruel irony that a woman who had spent her life "giving a voice to the voiceless" would then lose her own.

He recalled one of the messages she formed: "T-h-i-s-i-s-m-y-w-a-r."

Wali's lone marriage ended in divorce in 1987. She had no children. She​​​​​​ is survived by two sisters, Sohaila and Soraya Wali; and four brothers, Ahmad, Jahed, Zia and Abdul Wali.

UPDATES:

Oct. 25, 10:13 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details

This article was originally published Oct. 24 at 4:45 p.m .

Advertisement
Advertisement