'We Can Only Rely On Ourselves To Rebuild Our Country'

Suhaila Seddiqi, 62, will be sworn in as minister of health when Hamid Karzai takes office as Afghanistan's interim president tomorrow. The only woman in the country with the rank of general--and one of two female cabinet ministers in the new government--she's also one of the few women in Afghanistan who can cause a roomful of men to snap to attention.

Seddiqi completed her studies at the medical school of Moscow State University. In a society that sees marriage as a rite of passage for teenage girls, she stayed single, she says, because she was too dedicated to her profession and didn't have time for a husband. She spoke to NEWSWEEK's Babak Dehghanpisheh at Kabul's 400-bed military hospital, where she currently serves as director, about life as a female professional and the challenges that lie ahead for her country.

NEWSWEEK: What message does your appointment send to the women of Afghanistan?

Suhaila Seddiqi: The message is that today, with the help of God, we have regained our rights. The women who were stripped from their professions are now returning back to their posts in large numbers. They can re-enroll in schools, continue their studies and excel professionally.

What was the biggest difficulty during the time of the Taliban?

Before the Taliban, I was commander of this 400-bed military hospital. The Taliban sent me home for a period of eight months. Because of a dire need for female physicians, I was asked to come back. I endured the difficulties of the Taliban to serve the women of Afghanistan.

What do you think about the burqa?

The [new] government isn't pressuring women to wear the burqa. They've grown accustomed to it, and it will take a while for them to feel secure. Hopefully, they will take it off and be free soon.

And the liberation of Western women?

Afghan women would like freedom within the framework of Islam. I don't like the freedom of women in the West. I think Islam has a lot of respect for women. Men and women are equal in Islam, but the Taliban worked against Islamic values.

There are reports that, under the Taliban's interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law), some doctors amputated the limbs of those charged with crimes like theft. Do you plan to investigate these claims?

This is a question that all journalists ask, but I'm not aware of anyone who's done this, particularly from my hospital.

What request do you have for foreign countries?

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.

How do you feel about U.S. military action in Afghanistan?

Islam is against terrorism. The U.S. strikes put an end to terrorism in this country and the tragedy that had befallen the Afghan people. Because of this, I won't criticize the airstrikes.

How did you get the title of general?

I worked in a military hospital and had a military rank. I became a general because of my years of service.

Did you ever fight as part of your military duties?

My military duty consisted of working as a doctor. Doctors don't fight.

You heard about your current appointment as minister of health through the radio?

Yes, I heard from the radio. I'm grateful to the attendees of the Bonn conference [the recent U.N.-sponsored talks in Bonn, Germany, that set up Afghanistan's interim government] for recognizing all the years of service that I've done for my country.

How well do you know incoming president Hamid Karzai and the rest of the administration?

I don't really have contact with them, but I do have a lot of respect for them. They have sacrificed a lot for the liberation of the country.

You made a point of staying in Afghanistan for the past 35 years. How do you feel about Afghans who left the country?

I hope the Afghan diaspora returns home. We can only rely on ourselves to rebuild our country.