Afghanistan’s first female lieutenant general, Suhalia Siddiq, died on December 4 at the same hospital where she served as one of the top surgeons in the country for 36 years. This long-time feminist icon was one of only two women appointed to the cabinet after the removal of the Taliban from power in 2002. She led the Public Health Ministry until 2004 during the transitional government led by President Karzai. General Siddiq was in her early 80s and died of Covid-19 complications.
Growing up in a Pashtun family, Gen. Siddiq’s mother was a teacher and her father was a regional governor in Kandahar. Both encouraged their six daughters to go to school and pursue careers. She studied at Kabul Medical University, followed by years of medical training in Moscow in the 1960s. She returned to her country, persevering during the difficult years of wars, and committed to serving her people, something she took pride in for all her life.
When the Taliban took control and banned all women from working outside the home, the group specifically asked General Sohaila to return to her job at the hospital. She returned to her duty only on the condition that she and her sister not be made to wear burkas or any face covering in public. In an interview with the Guardian in 2002, she is quoted as saying, “The Taliban agreed. It was not exactly a victory for me, but they certainly needed me to be there. Even when I went to Kandahar (the birthplace of the Taliban) I never wore a burka.”
During the Soviet-Afghan war in the mid-1980s, Gen. Siddiq was promoted to surgeon general of the Afghan Army hospital by the Communist-backed government in Kabul. As the surgeon general of one of the most prominent hospitals in the country, she saved the lives of hundreds of wounded soldiers and civilians during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and then during the civil war. One close friend remembers her as generous and kind, both with her time and self to serving the people. “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.”
Before stepping down in 2004 to return to her job as a surgeon, she led 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 never married and is famous for saying she did so because she “didn’t want to take any orders from a man.”
President Ashraf Ghani, First Lady Rula Ghani, along with several feminist leaders attended her funeral, while former president, Karzai called her “one of the most experienced and popular doctors in the country,” someone who “dedicated herself to serving the country and its people.”