Fawzia Koofi – from a baby left to die to running for president of Afghanistan

by Ivana Davidovic

"If it was fiction, you would not believe it.”

That is how Nadene Ghouri, a journalist and a writer, described Fawzia Koofi‘s remarkable life story told in her new memoir The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future.

The day Koofi was born, was the day she was supposed to die. As a newborn, the 19th of 23 children in the household, her mother left her out in the sun to die.

Her mother repented, Koofi survived, not only that first day of her life, but also the trials and violence that followed. In the rugged terrain of the northern province where she grew up, she watched her father beat her mother.

She knew from an early age that politics was a dangerous game. Her father, a member of the Soviet-backed parliament was killed by mujahedeen warriors before she turned four. She also lost her husband and two brothers through the years of conflict.

Now, she has become her father’s political heir and a tireless fighter against prejudice and injustice blighting the lives of women and their children in Afghanistan.

One of the first female Members of Parliament in Afghanistan, Koofi was elected as a representative of Badakshan province in 2005. She was also the first woman to be elected as Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament in the history of Afghanistan and the first Afghani woman to work for the UN during the Taliban reign.

Very importantly, she was also the first woman in her family to go to school, which was no mean feat when nobody in her family, apart from her illiterate mother, wanted her to do so.

Koofi has certainly been a woman of many “firsts” and now she wants to break the ultimate barrier – becoming the first female president of Afghanistan in 2014.

The questions from the audience came thick and fast. Koofi answered them all politely and quickly, with determination of someone used to winning against all the odds.

Is Afghanistan even remotely ready to accept a female leader?

“The silent majority of women and the population in general want strong leaders to represent them. They want changes. If there are female leaders in Pakistan or Bangladesh, why not in Afghanistan?”

However, the withdrawal of foreign troops scheduled for 2014 is preying of Koofi‘s mind. Once the Western troops are gone, is there a chance of fair elections was one of the questions from the audience.

"There is a lot of uncertainty in Afghanistan about whether this early withdrawal will result in sustainable democracy. We are all concerned for different reasons – I am worried about possible return of the Taliban to the power. Women’s rights can easily be compromised because women have never been troublemakers. They have never been involved in the destruction of the country. It is very easy for someone to ignore women and I am concerned that we might loose all of the gains we have achieved in the past 11 years. Worst case scenario would be another war between the Taliban and those opposing them who would not want to return to those dark times.”

Ghouri noted that there was a lot of talk about women’s rights, but at the same time Koofi was in favour of Sharia law. Could she also be a feminist?

"I am fighting for Islamic rights for women. There has been a lot of misuse of Islam, mixing it with tradition and culture. We never had female interpreters of Islam. It was always interpreted by men. I am there to stand for women’t rights and still be a Muslim.”

From the audience we heard that it would probably make more sense then to have a secular state with fewer opportunities for religion to be interpreted one way or another?

Koofi, however, believes that Afghanistan is not quite there yet:

There are many Muslim secular states, like Turkey for example. But, in Afghanistan, we need to educate the society first. Many people are so closed and traditional, that when you talk about secularism they immediately think that you are an unbeliever. I think that we just need more time for that.

Not everyone was convinced that having a female president would be a good thing for Afghanistan.

One woman who said she’d had contacts with the Taliban was sceptical that they would talk to Koofi when they didn’t even want to talk to one of their own Pashtuns, current president Hamid Karzai.

As peace talks are so important for the country’s stability, wouldn’t it be irresponsible to compromise them in this way?

"Talking to the Taliban would not necessarily bring peace to Afghanistan because they don’t really have an Afghan agenda. Taliban were created outside of Afghanistan. Those Taliban who want to join the peace process are either being arrested or killed. I agree that the only way forward is to live together in peace. But if Taliban are brought to power then some countries will want to destabilise Afghanistan as they will see this as being in their interest."

"I am talking about Taliban created by Mullah Omar. They want to rule the country. They want Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan. We don’t want women to suffer again as they did before. If they want to be a part of the political process, then they should participate in the elections and win. We cannot just give them seats because they are the Taliban.”

"We would have no problems with those Taliban who accept the constitution and women’s rights. We need to hear from them, there are so many different spokespeople for the Taliban. How do we trust them?"

Although some more progressive laws are now in place, in reality it is very difficult for women to seek justice for crimes committed against them. Some wanted to know what hope was there for women in the future?

"Lack of rule of law is huge problem. The Taliban are one side of the problem, but lack of governance is equally important. There is a culture of impunity when it comes to women’s rights violations. I am fighting against it. That’s why we are working on this new law, we have put all of these issues – rape, beatings, honour killings, violence against women – as a crime. Enforcement is the next step, but we need to have laws first. Having this law approved in the Parliament has become my career challenge."

Koofi‘s vision of Afghanistan is a place where her daughters can be “respected as human beings". If anyone has a fighting chance of making this vision a reality, it is probably her.