Suhaila Siddiq was one of six girls born to a prominent family in Afghanistan. Her father believed in education and careers for women. Suhaila followed his guidance and became a medical doctor. In the Afghan culture this was very rare.
Dr. Siddiq was highly respected as a physician and became a lieutenant general in the Afghan Medical Corps. She was placed in charge of a 400-bed military hospital. During the Soviet-Afghan war, her hospital was besieged with war casualties. On one day, she performed surgeries for 24 hours in a row. Her dedication was such that she donated her blood to a patient when the hospital’s blood supply was insufficient.
When the Taliban took over Kabul, they initially dismissed General Siddiq from her position, as part of their policies against women holding positions outside the home. They soon relented, realizing that they needed her medical skills. She only agreed to serve if she and her sister would not be required to wear burkas.
General Siddiq was a trailblazer in medical care in her country. She led the effort for six million children to receive the polio vaccine, 50 years after the vaccine became available. She was also instrumental in modernizing health care facilities. She never married, explaining once that she “didn’t want to take orders from a man.”
Of all of her achievements, General Siddiq’s most lasting achievement might be how she led the way for women in Afghanistan to have medical careers. General Siddiq became the beacon of hope for women who wanted careers in medicine. Even during the years of Taliban control, she managed to continue teaching medicine to women whose studies had been officially banned. “She fought the Taliban for us,” one of her students remarked, adding “today I am a gynecologist, and I owe it to her.” It’s hard to imagine how the world can meet its health care needs if women are excluded from the practice of medicine.
In 2020 General Siddiq died from complications of the Covid-19 virus. In her life, she was an icon of possibility for women in Afghanistan and for the health care of all of its citizens. Few people get a chance to lead the way for others as she did. But to do so when her own life was threatened by an oppressive regime was remarkable.
Think about what it takes to live your life while creating possibilities for others to follow. That’s special, but it’s also daunting. You must always be aware that everything you do is under scrutiny. A love develops around such icons. Both achievements and disappointments are amplified. It takes a special person to be able to remain themselves under such pressure.
Just imagine the motivation of those who become pioneers in service to the betterment of their country—especially when those efforts are resisted by those who hold power. That motivation must be incredibly strong when working against an existing power structure that would limit possibilities for certain citizens. Imagine the possibilities that one person can open up for others. Think of our own society. Where we might look for new icons of possibility, like General Siddiq?
* * *
“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”— William Shakespeare
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.