Risking Her Life To Become President
By Kate BartlettAugust 14, 2012
Afghan politician and women’s rights defender Fawzia Koofi explains why she’s running for her war-torn nation’s highest office.
Kabul, Afghanistan — Afghan Member of Parliament and presidential hopeful Fawzia Koofi knew from a very early age what it meant to be born a girl in Afghanistan.
Left out in the baking sun minutes after her birth by an abused and desperate mother disappointed at having yet another girl child, the infant Koofi suffered third-degree burns to her face before her mother repented and saved her life.
It was the beginning of a strong bond between Koofi and her mother — one of seven wives. But her father only spoke to her once, and that was to tell her to be quiet and go away.
That one time he spoke to her, her father, who was an important official in the remote Northern Province of Badakhshan, used a Dari term that Koofi still detests; he called her "Dukhtarak", which roughly translates as "less than a girl".
Now a dynamic politician, prominent women's rights campaigner, and widowed mother of two girls, 36-year-old Koofi represents the same province her father did as an MP and has set her sights on the highest office in this war-torn land — the presidency — recently announcing her intention to run in the 2014 elections.
Not bad for "less than a girl".
A short drive along the dusty, potholed road to Koofi's Kabul home shows evidence of just how far Afghan women have come since the fundamentalist Taliban regime was toppled after US-led troops invaded in 2001.
Banned from school under the Taliban, girls in androgynous black uniforms and white headscarves can now be seen making their way to and from class. Young women who pair jeans and high heels with colourful headscarves and bags full of books stand chatting outside Kabul's main university.
But the route is also representative of the toll the war has taken on this impoverished country. Other women in dusty blue burqas and clutching small babies lie prostrate, begging in the dirt, while heavily armed men sit and smoke behind checkpoints fortified with sandbags and razor wire. Black Hawks patrol the skies and armoured vehicles, the streets. There is a constant feeling of tension here and many, Koofi included, worry that women's hard-earned gains could be lost when the 130,000-strong NATO-led forces pull out in 2014.
Despite the recent murder of a regional head of women's affairs — killed by a car bomb in July — and despite having had numerous threats made on her life, Koofi has minimal security at her modest home. There's just one armed guard.
"Even if I face challenges, security problems, I am not afraid," says Koofi, dressed modestly as Islam dictates, in a white blouse, long black polka-dot skirt and black headscarf, and sitting in a comfortable armchair in her living room.
"We are role models for people. If we are scared ... then people will not have the courage to move forward."
Sitting forward intently in her chair with a cup of green tea in her hands, Koofi lays out the reasons why she decided to run for president earlier this year.
"I want to run for president first because I think Afghanistan needs new faces of politicians.
"Not many leaders at the top level bring women's issues as a priority.
"If people like me don't come forward then we automatically give space for Taliban and extremism to rule the country."
Does she think she has a chance of winning? No politician runs to lose, Koofi offers in reply. However, she adds, "even if the election results are not always what you want, the important thing is that you challenge some of these politicians."
And despite the fact that many think Koofi won't make a dent in the vote in such a male-dominated society, the parliamentarian insists that people can change their thinking. She saw evidence of that when she ran for election in Badakhshan in 2004.
Her 2011 autobiography Letters to My Daughters, published by Douglas & Mcintyre in Canada and under the title The Favored Daughter in the US (Palgrave McMillan), details how, against the odds, Koofi received a good education and was studying medicine in Kabul when the Taliban came to power. That put an end to her studies, but Koofi and her family suffered far worse hardships under the hardline Islamist regime that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, which banned women from leaving their homes without a male relative, made the burqa mandatory, and stoned people in public stadiums for a slew of perceived crimes.
With her widowed mother's indulgence, Koofi was married in a love-match to an intellectual who was jailed several times by the Taliban on fabricated charges. While in prison he became ill with tuberculosis — the disease he would die of after only a few short years of marriage. Desperate to escape persecution in Kabul, the couple and their small daughter risked the dangerous journey back to Koofi's home province of Badakhshan where the Taliban were not in control.
There Koofi set on the path that would eventually lead her into politics, getting a job first as a teacher and then with UNICEF. When the US-led invasion began in 2001, Koofi and her daughters returned to Kabul where she continued to work for the United Nations and then, despite some opposition from her extended family, decided to run for Parliament in the 2004 elections.
And that's how she experienced first-hand that people could change their thinking. She campaigned in her seat of Badakhshan — as her father had done before her — and many rural men who would once have declared women second-class citizens or worse, turned out to hear her speak, came to her door with problems and, ultimately, voted for her.
While initially a supporter of Hamid Karzai — whose photograph still hangs on her living room wall, near that of her father — Koofi has grown increasingly disappointed by his concessions to hardliners and his flip-flopping on women's issues.
"There is lack of political commitment already in the government when it comes to women's rights," Koofi says, glancing at the photograph. "The thing is that President Karzai's dependency on the extreme forces, or conservative forces, has increased recently."
In March, Karzai supported an edict by Afghanistan's most senior Islamic authority, the Ulema Council, which decreed that women were secondary to men and should not work in mixed offices with them or travel without a male companion.
"We don't trust him anymore for his views against women's rights," says Koofi, adding that she thinks his views are partly the president's own inherent beliefs and partly due to the pro-Pakistan, pro-Iran politicians, who she calls "the Eastern Bloc" and who make up some of his advisors. It also comes back to his attempt at reconciliation with the Taliban — a peace process Koofi has little faith in.
For the peace process to succeed the Taliban would have to show they had moved away from their extremist agenda, and Koofi says she has yet to see any sign of this.
"Recently there was this horrible video of the woman who was shot, just a few kilometers from Kabul in the Taliban-controlled areas, and when she was killed they called the killer a champion," Koofi says, referring to a video of an execution, by jeering men, of a young woman for alleged adultery. The video, which surfaced online in July, quickly gained global attention and condemnation.
"If that's the perspective of the Taliban then I think the first thing which will be compromised and sacrificed [under an agreement with the government] would be the women — any kind of rights, including educational and social rights."
Koofi says she wept when she saw the execution video. "I was shocked because in the same air that I breathe, the same water that I use, these people are so wild and brutal that they call themselves champions for killing a woman. So I was lost; how could I live in a place where this is happening?" she asks.
The execution is not the only sign that things already are getting worse for women, Koofi says, referencing the Sahar Gul case, in which a 15-year-old girl was locked in a toilet by her in-laws and brutally tortured for refusing to go into prostitution, as well as the recent killing of Hanifa Safi, a women's affairs official in Laghman province.
Gul was rescued in December after enduring five months of torture and her case gained international notoriety, making the slight adolescent an unlikely symbol of the women's movement here. Safi was blown up by a magnetic bomb attached to her car and authorities have blamed the murder on the Taliban.
So-called honor killings have also exponentially increased, with almost 50 incidents reported so far this year compared with 20 for the whole of last year, according to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.
And while the international donor community pledged USD16 billion in aid to Afghanistan at a meeting in Tokyo in July — much of which was under the condition that the government stamp out corruption and improve conditions for women — Koofi worries that no penalties were set out to enforce those conditions.
"I think Afghanistan needs aid," she explains. "[But] when it comes to the international community, I think we had expected more strong and measurable commitments to say 'we give you this money, but this amount should go to promote health for women because the country is suffering from high maternal mortality, this amount should go towards establishing female schools...'"
Koofi is a staunch Muslim and her faith is of great importance to her, but she says she resents the way it has been hijacked by those who imbue it with their own doctrine and interpretation.
"As a Muslim woman, somebody who lived in Kabul during Taliban, I know there is a huge difference between my understanding as a Muslim woman and the Taliban's interpretation of Islam," Koofi says. However she does not reserve her criticism for the Taliban alone; she also takes on the clerics.
"Unfortunately there is a lack of understanding of Islamic rights of women even among so-called religious scholars ... Because we don't have too many women religious scholars, what we hear is from the men and it's enough that they recite a few verses of Arabic and we just keep quiet because we think these people are right.
"Islam has always been politicised, it has always been misused by the male, and the easy part of Islam is to impose more things on women. Look now, the country's suffering from so many problems: suicide bombing — it's not permitted in Islam; corruption — it's not allowed in Islam ... And you think if women don't work in the same offices as man all the problems of this country will be solved?" she continues incredulously.
Koofi is no fan of the burqa either. Forced to wear it for the first time under the Taliban, she describes at length in her book how claustrophobic she found it, how difficult to move easily, and how her eyelashes got stuck to the netting covering her face and made it difficult to see.
In her autobiography, Koofi writes a series of poignant letters to her daughters, Shohra and Shaharzad, now aged 12 and 14, explaining to them why she is doing what she's doing and urging them to be strong, ambitious women when they grow up. Like their doting mother, they have set their sights high — one wants to be a rocket scientist, the other the president.
While she acknowledges that children's dreams change, all she wants for her daughters is for them "and all other girls and women of this country to be respected as a human beings and to reproduce what they have learned into the reconstruction of this country".
But despite the nascent changes in attitudes, lasting social change in this deeply traditional society will be an uphill battle whatever happens when the international troops pull out.
In a particularly telling vignette in Koofi's autobiography, her late husband Hamid, a gentle, bookish man, is so disappointed when Koofi gives birth to a second daughter rather than a son that he does not visit mother and baby until 9 hours after the birth, and even moves into a different bedroom.
Sadly, history tends to repeat itself.