Gen. Siddiq had helped keep her hospital going in the 1980s, when she and her colleagues treated as many as 50 casualties a day during the Soviet-Afghan war, and persisted a decade later when Kabul was rocked by guerrilla fighting and rocket attacks during a civil war. After one especially deadly attack, she performed surgery for 24 hours straight. When a patient desperately needed a pint of blood one day, she donated it herself.
After the Taliban came to power in 1996, the group ordered women home from schools and workplaces, only to call Gen. Siddiq back to the hospital eight months later, deeming her surgical expertise irreplaceable. She agreed to return only after the Taliban permitted her and her sister to walk the streets without wearing a burqa, the traditional head-to-toe women’s covering.
“I endured the difficulties of the Taliban to serve the women of Afghanistan,” she told Newsweek in 2001, after being appointed health minister under Hamid Karzai, who led an interim government after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime.
Gen. Siddiq died Dec. 4 at the Daoud Khan military hospital in Kabul, where she had worked for nearly four decades as a surgeon. She was believed to be in her early 80s — her exact birth date is unknown — and had Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Afghan news channel ToloNews. One of her doctors told the New York Times she died of complications from the coronavirus.
“Growing up in Afghanistan, I remember that when people, both men and women, spoke Suhaila Siddiq’s name, they did so almost reverently, as if she held massive authority,” said Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to the United States. In an email, she added that Gen. Siddiq “was an icon of possibility for women and girls in Afghanistan.”
Gen. Siddiq was born in Kabul or Kandahar — accounts vary — into an ethnic Pashtun family that traced its lineage to the Mohammadzai clan, which ruled Afghanistan for generations before a 1978 coup. Her mother trained as a teacher, and her father was a regional governor in Kandahar who encouraged his six daughters to go to school and pursue careers.
After studying in Kabul, Gen. Siddiq graduated from medical school in Moscow in 1961. When the country descended into conflict with the Soviet Union nearly two decades later, she spurned suggestions that she leave Afghanistan, as four of her sisters did. “It is a matter of pride for me. I stayed in my country, and I served my people,” she told the Guardian. “I never fled abroad.”
She became known as “General Suhaila” after being promoted in the mid-1980s, and by then was known for her fearlessness and fiery temper, as well as her skill in abdominal surgery. Colleagues told the Guardian that she “once slapped a Kalashnikov-toting mojahedin warrior across the face for what she considered impudence.”
Gen. Siddiq remained defiant even after the Taliban came to power, instituted an ultraconservative form of Islamic rule and effectively barred women from public life, restricting access to medical care, education and jobs after years in which Afghan women were appointed to high levels in government and filled the ranks of hospital staff.
“When the religious police came with their canes and raised their arms to hit me” for refusing to wear a burqa, “I raised mine to hit them back. Then they lowered their arms and let me go,” Gen. Siddiq said, according to “The Bookseller of Kabul,” a 2002 nonfiction book by Asne Seierstad.
Gen. Siddiq argued that the Taliban had misinterpreted the Koran — “according to Islam, men and women are equal” — but generally stayed out of politics. She told Newsweek that she learned she had been named health minister only after hearing the news on a radio broadcast, and was reluctant to join Karzai’s interim government.
But she came to view her appointment as sending a message: “that today, with the help of God, we have regained our rights,” and that women could “re-enroll in schools, continue their studies and excel professionally.”
Before stepping down in 2004 to return to surgery, she spearheaded a program to vaccinate millions of children against polio; rehired female health workers who lost their jobs under the Taliban; and promoted reproductive health and programs to combat HIV/AIDS.
Afghan media reported that Gen. Siddiq had no immediate survivors. She had never married, she said, because she “didn’t want to take any orders from a man.”
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