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10.12.09

The Woman Who Should Have Won Obama's Nobel

Dr. Sima Samar, the physician and activist who survived a fatwa in Afghanistan, is the woman doing the kinds of things Obama is talking about—which is why she deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.

It was more than a general feeling of general crankiness that overcame us when we heard that President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Sure, there was the feeling of embarrassment and the seemingly universal cry of “for what?!”

But there was more. For some of us, it was the same feeling we had in snowy Iowa in December 2007 when we realized that Barack Obama, the state senator from Illinois and the one-term U.S. senator with no discernible accomplishments, could very well wrest the nomination away from the woman we believed would be an extraordinary president and whose record of accomplishment was indisputable and lengthy.

Samar has noted that high incidence of bone fragility among Afghan women is due to an absence of sunlight because of the forced wearing of the burqa.

So here we go again. Despite a record-setting year for women and the Nobels—just Monday, Elinor Ostrom made history for being the first woman to win in economics, joining last week's female quartet in chemistry, physiology/medicine, and literature—it was Barack Obama who beat another accomplished woman who was on the short list for the award and in many quarters was widely expected to win.

Let me tell you about Dr. Sima Samar, one of three reported “finalists.” (The others were Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe, who has opposed President Robert Mugabe, and Hu Jia of China, a human rights and democracy advocate who's currently imprisoned for "inciting subversion of state power.")

Dr. Sima Samar is a 52-year-old physician who was born and educated in Afghanistan, receiving her medical degree from Kabul University when it was one of the prestigious medical schools in the region. By 1984, under threats from the Communist regime that had seized the country, Dr. Samar and her family fled to Quetta, Pakistan. By 1989, Dr. Samar was so disturbed at the lack of health facilities for women and girls that she founded the Shuhada Organization and Shuhada Clinic.

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That is where I first met Samar in December 2001. By that time, she was a legend in the region. She had established a collection of clinics and underground schools for girls in Taliban controlled Afghanistan, running the operations from a satellite phone in her Quetta clinic, with an annual budget of around $300,000.

Her schools and hospitals were regularly attacked by the Taliban, and some of her staff members killed. My favorite story from that time was when a Taliban commander brought his mother to Samar's hospital in Quetta. After all, it was the best care around for women! Samar learned it was this same commander who had ordered the bombing and ransacking of her hospital inside Afghanistan.

“You bombed my clinic. You ransacked my hospital, stole my equipment, my electricity, my toilets and sinks. You must return those things,” Samar told the commander.

“I didn't know it was your hospital!” the commander protested. “I don't have your things anymore.”

“Yes, you do. And I,” she said, with the gentle and graciousness smile that is her trademark, “have your mother.”

Dr. Samar returned to Afghanistan in 2002. She was named deputy president under Hamid Karzai and later minister of women's affairs. Openly opposed to religious extremism and questioning Sharia law, Samar has noted that high incidence of bone fragility among Afghan women is due to an absence of sunlight because of the forced wearing of the burqa. She was driven from office by death threats when a Mullah announced a fatwa on her and called her Afghanistan's Salman Rushdie.

But Dr. Samar didn't go away. She is now the chairman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Sudan, and the recipient of a number of international awards for her continuing work on human rights and women's rights. In other words: she is the woman doing the kinds of things that Barack Obama is talking about.

I'm not going to be unreasonably churlish about all this, and I am going to assume as Peggy Noonan does that President Obama did not campaign for this award. But there is no question that the Nobel committee hoped to influence the American policy debate on what to do next about the war Afghanistan with this award. I also hope that, premature or not, President Obama will live up to the award. He named Hillary to his cabinet after all. So now, what to do about Afghanistan? Maybe he should talk to Dr. Samar.

Elaine Lafferty is a former staff correspondent at Time magazine and the Irish Times, features editor at More magazine, and editor in chief of Ms. magazine. She is co-author of My Turn at the Bully Pulpit with Greta Van Susteren.