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Sima Wali dies; exiled champion of Afghan women was 66

Sima Wali and Afghan diplomat Zalmai Rassoul at

Sima Wali and Afghan diplomat Zalmai Rassoul at UN-organized talks on Afghanistan in Germany on Nov. 27, 2001. Credit: Associated Press / HERBERT KNOSOWSKI

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, Virginia. She was 66.

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

As leader of the Washington-based nonprofit organization Refugee Women in Development, 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, 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 killed themselves by drinking battery fluid because they were so ill, hungry and oppressed.

Wali assigned some responsibility for the situation to the United States, which supported the Muslim guerrillas known as mujahedeen 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.”

Wali was one of the few women to participate in UN 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.

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.

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,” Wali had said at the Bonn conference. “We will not go away.”

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