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Political Landscape

AAN Obituary: Doctor, general, minister, trailblazer Suhaila Sediq (1938-2020)

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

General Dr Suhaila Sediq, one of two female ministers in the first post-Taleban government, died on 4 December 2020 from complications of a second Covid-19 infection. Sediq who had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for several years died in the same hospital she ran for over a quarter of a century until she was appointed Minister of Public Health in the Afghan Interim Administration (AIA) at the 2001 Afghanistan conference in Bonn. The AIA officially came into power on 22 December that year. “General Suhaila,” as she was widely known, served in this position for four years, ie also in the subsequent Afghan Transitional Administration (2002-04), until a new cabinet was formed after the first presidential election in 2004. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig who met her several times before and after 2001 looks back at her extraordinary life.

Dr Suhaila Sediq (3rd from right) received, with other Afghan ministers, by then US President George W Bush in the White House in 2002. Pictured from left, are: Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah; Minister of Commerce late Mustafa Kazemi; Minister of Health late Suhaila Sediq; Minister of Women’s Affairs Habiba Sorabi; Minister of Reconstruction Mohammad Amin Farhang. Photo: Susan Sterner. (This file is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the US federal government, it is in the public domain.).

Suhaila Sediq’s unusual title, General Dr, composed of a scientific degree and a military rank, is evidence of her unique place in Afghanistan. She was not one of the first women to graduate from Kabul University’s medical faculty, [1]According to Fahima Rahimi’s Women in Afghanistan (1977, reprint Liestal 1986, pp 63, 67), the first female students were able to attend Kabul University when a separate women’s college … Continue reading but she was the first to make a career in the Afghan army and the only one who rose to the rank of three-star general. She also held the highest academic rank on the Afghan six-step scale for university faculty, pohand.

It was Suhaila Sediq’s aristocratic background and the liberal mindset of her family that opened doors for her education and career. She came from a Muhammadzai family in Kandahar but was not directly related to the Afghan royal family. Her father, Muhammad Sediq Khan, whose name she chose as her takhallus (surname), served as a provincial governor in Farah (1956-59), Kandahar (1959-60) and Herat (1966-68), as well as the head of the Afghan Red Crescent and Kabul mayor. [2]According to Ludwig Adamec’s Who’s Who in Afghanistan (Graz 1975). Her mother, a sister of Afghanistan’s most famous modern painter Abdul Ghafur Breshna, [3]Breshna (1907-74) was one of the first Afghan students sent abroad for higher education by Amir, later King Amanullah (r. 1919-29). He studied painting and lithography at the Academy of Fine Arts in … Continue reading was a teacher. Her mother (name not related) was educated at the German-run Amani high school in Kabul, where the family lived when Suhaila, the fourth of six daughters, was born. 

According to most available sources, [4]See particularly, Haqiqat and The New York Times. she was born in the year 1316/17 (1938) in the Bagh-e Nawab neighbourhood of Kabul’s old city. Her exact date of birth is not known, and she did not want to disclose it when the Guardian interviewed her. According to the New York Times, [5]According to the New York Times obituary. Dr Nesar Ahmad Sediqi, in his obituary, gives 20 Hut 1327 (11 March 1949) but this seems unlikely. she was “thought to be 81 or 82″ when she died.

Not having a son, her parents were intent on obtaining the best education available for their six daughters, Zakia, Fahima, Mastura, Sediqa (both deceased), Amina, apart from Suhaila. Zakia later became deputy director of Malalai High School; Fahima taught at Zarghuna High School, also in Kabul; Mastura Aziz Sultan became a professor at Kabul Medical School.

Suhaila Sediq attended Malalai high school in Kabul’s Shahr-e Now, followed by two years at Kabul University’s medical faculty where her elder sister Mastura taught. With a scholarship, she completed her studies at the First Moscow State Medical University, where she earned a PhD in general surgery and returned to Afghanistan in 1975 during President Muhammad Daud’s Republic. She was immediately appointed to the Central Army Hospital in Kabul (later Shahid Muhammad Daud Khan hospital, better known as chaharsad bistar, ie 400-bed hospital). In order to her keep her at the hospital, she was given a military rank, that of a jeg-turan (1st degree captain). [6]The Afghan army has two captain ranks, the lower being turan (captain), the higher being jeg-turan. The hospital, a part of the Armed Forces Academy of Medical Sciences (AFAM), is where she served for 36 years and was eventually appointed as its director in 1373 (1994/95).

In 1357 (1978/79), during the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) regime, she became the head of the hospital’s department of surgery, first in the rank of dagarman (lieutenant colonel) and then promoted to brid jenral (brigadier general). [7]Sediqi, in his obituary, wrote that she received the general’s rank during Daud’s republic. Under the mujahedin government, then defence minister Ahmad Shah Massud personally asked General Suhaila to run the hospital, according to the New York Times.

When the Taleban captured Kabul in September 1996, Suhaila Sediq lost her job (as did all women employed in the public sector) as part of a purge of doctors educated in the Soviet Union, according to the Guardian. The Taliban immediately sacked “female doctors, nurses and orderlies who, in a country of war widows, made up 70% of the staff”, throwing the health sector into turmoil. 

Eight months later, the Taleban asked General Suhaila to return to work. “They needed me and they asked me to come back,” she told the Guardian. She did so, officially as the head of the hospital’s women’s clinic, on the condition that she and her late sister, Shafiqa, an architect and professor at Kabul’s Polytechnic Institute, were exempted from wearing the burqa. The Taleban agreed. She also taught female students at Kabul University’s medical faculty which also lacked capacity. “They only teach amputations here,” a staff member told the author a few years later, when the Taleban were still in power.

She was promoted to dagar jenral (lieutenant general, three-star rank), in 2001, becoming the highest-ranking woman ever in the Afghan army. A photo taken during the 2004 presidential election shows her wearing her general’s uniform.

About her appointment as the Afghan Interim Administration’s Minister of Health in Bonn, she said, she heard it on the radio, like most other appointees. (See a photo of her and her cabinet colleague Sima Samar in the New York Times.) Her name had been included in one of the lists of ten-or-so names that then UN special envoy, the former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, had asked the four delegations at the conference (the Cyprus, Peshawar and Rome groups and the United Front aka ‘Northern Alliance’) to submit to him and from which he composed the cabinet. Apparently, he did not instruct any of his staff to contact the appointees for their consent, which was taken as already granted. Sediq later told the Guardian, she accepted the post “as a patriot.” Later, she said in a meeting in which the author was present that she was hesitant to take the job as she knew how to run a hospital, but not a ministry.

The Guardian described her as “spectrally thin” with “long slim fingers [that] seem unsuited to the messy business of abdominal surgery – her speciality.” Her “pencilled-on eyebrows arch[ing] across a high, domed forehead” were still visible in the last video of her. “She conducts herself with the confidence of a woman used to giving orders,” the Guardian wrote when interviewing her in 2002. A former colleague wrote she was well known for being strict with staff who did not follow the rules. Another former high-ranking colleague (but her subordinate) told AAN she was feared for her “military commando tone.” Doctor Akhtar Muhammad Shadgar, another colleague, however, said that “she was very disciplined when at work, but like a friend outside.“

Over the decades of her work as a surgeon, Dr Sediq performed thousands of operations which earned her deep respect, regardless of the regime under which she served. At the same time, she managed to keep herself away from day-to-day politics, reportedly apart from a brief stint as the deputy head of the All-Afghan Women’s Council that was founded under President Najibullah in 1986 (the exact period is unclear). All this increased her standing among those who ruled and those who were ruled. When the author returned to Kabul in early 2000, she, and her self-confident dealings with the Taleban, was legend.

A mural by the Kabul-based Artlords group at a blast wall next to the Ministry of Public Health in the Afghan capital, saying “Our hero, Dr Suhaila Sediq, first women general.” Photo: Haroon Popalzai/AAN.

In a 2001 interview with Newsweek, when asked if she ever fought as part of her “military duties,” she curtly replied: “My military duty consisted of working as a doctor. Doctors don’t fight.” She was more interested in speaking about her immediate job and said:

After two decades of war, our hospitals are in bad shape. Our health system has fallen apart. We desperately need modern medical equipment. If foreign doctors could come to our hospital it would be very good – our young doctors could learn from them.

Despite her reservations, she proved to be the perfect choice to head the Ministry of Public Health. After a few months on the job, the Guardian reported, she had already rehired “nearly 3,000 female doctors, nurses and workers who lost their jobs when the Taliban came in,” encouraged the reopening of private women’s clinics“ and sacked “100 or so Taliban who were imposed on the ministry as administrators.” She also played a key role in rolling out the countrywide polio vaccination campaign (read AAN background here), as the disease had become endemic in war-time Afghanistan.

When Hamed Karzai, after he won the first presidential election in 2004, appointed a new cabinet, Suhaila Sediq was replaced by a man. He was also a medical doctor, and he had the advantage of enjoying the support of one of the former mujahedin parties and that of the former interim president, the late Prof Sebghatullah Mojaddedi. Suhaila Sediq was made an advisor-minister to the president and went back to her job as a surgeon. 

Having fallen ill with the Alzheimer’s disease, and with no relatives living in Kabul, she was given a room, treatment and a nurse in her old hospital. She was there in March 2017 when a group of gunmen with inside help disguised as doctors staged a massive attack killing patients and medical personnel (media reports here and here). The Islamic State claimed the attack. Sediq was not directly harmed. In January 2019, President Ashraf Ghani inaugurated the AFAM Obstetrics and Gynaecology Hospital, financed by the US military and Italy, and named it after Suhaila Sediq. The President also attended her funeral ceremony in Kabul on 5 December 2020.

As a minister, Suhaila Sediq served in the same field as the first-ever female minister in Afghanistan, Kubra Nurzai (1932–1986), who was a teacher by profession and held the public health portfolio in two cabinets from 1965 to 1969 (under prime ministers Muhammad Hashem Maiwandwal and Nur Ahmad Ettemadi) during the monarchy’s “decade of democracy” (for background, see this AAN report). Like Kubra Nurzai, Suhaila Sediq never married and, except for her time studying in Moscow, never left the country. She lived with her sister Shafiqa until she died in spring 2000. “I didn’t marry because I didn’t want to take any orders from a man,” the Guardian newspaper quoted Suhaila Sediq as saying.

General Dr Suhaila Sediq (1938-2020) leaves behind no close relatives in Afghanistan. It is not clear how many of her four sisters who live(d) abroad are still alive. 

Edited by Roxanna Shapour

References

1 According to Fahima Rahimi’s Women in Afghanistan (1977, reprint Liestal 1986, pp 63, 67), the first female students were able to attend Kabul University when a separate women’s college was established in 1329 (1950/51) which was located at Malalai High School until 1332 (1953/54). According to Erika Knabe, Frauenemanzipation in Afghanistan(Meisenheim 1977, p 166), the college was established in 1327 (1948). According to Rahimi, the first female students graduated from Kabul University in 1963.
2 According to Ludwig Adamec’s Who’s Who in Afghanistan (Graz 1975).
3 Breshna (1907-74) was one of the first Afghan students sent abroad for higher education by Amir, later King Amanullah (r. 1919-29). He studied painting and lithography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (Germany). Apart from being a painter, he was a poet, composer and film director.
4 See particularly, Haqiqat and The New York Times.
5 According to the New York Times obituary. Dr Nesar Ahmad Sediqi, in his obituary, gives 20 Hut 1327 (11 March 1949) but this seems unlikely.
6 The Afghan army has two captain ranks, the lower being turan (captain), the higher being jeg-turan.
7 Sediqi, in his obituary, wrote that she received the general’s rank during Daud’s republic.

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Kabul obituary Covid-19 General Suhaila Suhaila Sediq Minister of Public Health female minister Kubra Nurzai Daud Khan hospital

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