Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Fawzi Koofi: The face of what Afghanistan could be

Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi talks in the guest room of her house in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday, December 18, 2010.

Mikhail Galustov/Mikhail Galustov

Violence has shadowed Fawzia Koofi since her childhood in the wild mountains of northern Afghanistan.

She saw her father beat her mother if the dinner rice was not fluffy enough. She lost her father, brother and husband to the country's successive wars, insurgencies and Taliban dictatorship.

As a member of parliament since 2005, she has lived with death threats and survived assassination attempts. An aide, the district manager in her re-election campaign this year, was murdered a few months ago.

Story continues below advertisement

But this is not what Ms. Koofi, now 35 and one of the country's most outspoken democracy activists, wants her children to know. It is, at least, not the only story she wants to tell about her life and her country.

"I want to tell to the world, as a woman who has lived through all the situations, that women can make a difference," she says. "I want to show how strong Afghan women are."

In the tangled suspicion-driven politics of Afghanistan, Ms. Koofi is one of a growing number of spirited Afghan women in public life who have refused to sit quietly on the back benches as men fight over the country's future.

She has written an autobiography called Letters to My Daughters, which will be published in Europe next month and in Canada in May. It is as much a personal memoir and testament to the women she has known, such as her beloved mother, who persevered in a society warped as often by tradition as by war.

Like her life, the book spans the country's descent from the relatively benign monarchy of her infancy through the years of invasion, fratricidal violence and Islamic fundamentalism, and ends in the still-uncertain present of a fledgling state threatened by Taliban insurgents.

In it, Ms. Koofi describes unflinchingly the wreckage she witnessed at the hands of Afghans of all ideologies and clans: the domestic violence that was a mundane part of family life, gang rape, the burning of a Kabul mosque where dozens of women had sought shelter during the civil war, and the public humiliation and beatings meted out casually by the Taliban.

Addressing her daughters, now 11 and 12, she wrote; "You were lucky not to be a young woman in those days. Very lucky indeed."

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Koofi now worries that the small steps taken in the past few years to open opportunities for women could be undone by secret government concessions to Taliban insurgents.

Elected to a second term in the September vote, she is one of about 200 successful candidates who have vowed to convene the new parliament on Sunday in defiance of President Hamid Karzai's decision to postpone the opening for at least another month to give a judge more time to investigate fraud accusations.

She does not identify herself as an opponent of the President. But she says Mr. Karzai must open a real debate on the terms of any potential settlement so women's rights are protected.

"Before going to peace and reconciliation, we need to have a public debate and to talk about what we mean," says Ms. Koofi, echoing the view of leaders of the NATO-led coalition whose troops are battling the Taliban.

"There are some who might change with time - the Taliban foot soldiers who joined because of poverty or because they followed ex- mujahedeen - but they are not the decision-makers," she says. "What we have to establish is what assurances are there for the rights of women and children."

Ms. Koofi's own experiences reflect how Afghanistan has and has not changed over the years.

Story continues below advertisement

She comes from the wild, remote and mountainous Badakhshan province on the border with China and the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. It was and remains one of the poorest places in the country.

Much of Badakhshan province is still nearly as inaccessible and underserved as in her father's day. From her home village of Koof, she says, it takes two days of non-stop driving in a modern four-wheel-drive vehicle to reach the provincial capital over mountain passes.

She describes her family as a kind of rough-hewn rural aristocracy. Her father and grandfather were village leaders who owned land, horses, cattle and the only radio in the area, "a chunky wooden Russian wireless with brass controls."

She was the 19th of her father's 23 children, the daughter of the second of his seven wives. Improbably, given the insular and conservative culture that still prevails in her province, she has also become his political heir. He was the district's first representative to the Afghan parliament of the early 1970s.

Ms. Koofi was 3½ when her father was killed by anti-government rebels, or mujahedeen, fighting the Soviet-backed government. The family fled to the provincial capital of Faizabad, where she became the first girl in her family to be allowed to attend school.

Villagers at the time did not educate their girls. Many did not send their boys either, out of fear that once registered with the authorities the boys would eventually be conscripted into the army.

Even now, she says, it is a struggle to get girls enrolled in her province, in part because of parental resistance but often also because there are no schools or trained teachers. Where there are schools, often held in the open air, boys and girls attend in separate shifts. It is a problem common to most of rural Afghanistan.

Health clinics and schools are being built but not quickly enough, says Ms. Koofi. She is trying to improve public hygiene by getting at least one toilet built in each village for women. The few that exist are still reserved exclusively for men.

In Ms. Koofi's constituency, the first woman teacher was hired only last year.

It was in Faizabad, she says, that she first had to wear a burka. Relatives insisted it was not safe to go out uncovered with so many swaggering soldiers around. She was 16 and describes how she suddenly felt insignificant, clumsy and robbed of her blossoming identity as a modern educated woman.

Her marriage was arranged, although she had a glimpse of her future husband, an engineer and part-time chemistry teacher, when he came to ask her widowed mother for her hand. She liked him. Her brothers, who wanted a more politically advantageous marriage, opposed it. War and family illness intervened.

By the time they finally did marry four years later, the Taliban had come to power in Kabul.

Ten days after their wedding, bearded armed men came looking at her apartment for one of her brothers, who had been a senior police commander in the mujahedeen government. Not finding him, they arrested Ms. Koofi's husband. In Taliban prisons, she says, he contracted the tuberculosis that finally killed him in 2003.

Two years later, she says, she "started my independence." She bought a car. She ran for office. And she started getting both death threats and marriage proposals. "There were many warlords and criminals asking for me," she says. "Even now these stupid people still ask. They go to my friends and relatives. Some of those who write the worst things against me in the media are the ones who asked."

Anyone associated with the government, whether a police officer or soldier or politician, can be a target these days of insurgents. Being a woman in a position of political power can amplify the risk.

Ms. Koofi, like other parliamentarians, has government bodyguards. After her small convoy was attacked on a highway near Kabul last year, resulting in a shootout that left two policemen dead, the number was doubled.

When she went to her district to campaign five months ago, and to take exams for a long-postponed degree in political science, she travelled in taxis, changing cars frequently and hiding herself under the hated burka.

As she related these bits of memories in an interview at a hilltop hotel in Kabul, Ms. Koofi looked down at the rebuilt sprawling Polytechnic University and its adjacent library. Both had been burned in the civil war between rival mujahedeen groups.

At one time, as a girl with dreams, she had wanted to go there. She had watched the buildings burn. Only a few years later, she was forced to stop attending medical school when the Taliban banned the education of women and girls.

Her own daughters wear jeans, go to school and have travelled with her outside the country. They can barely picture, she says, the life she lived as a girl and young woman.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Foreign Editor

Susan Sachs is a former Foreign Editor of The Globe and Mail.Ms. Sachs was previously the Afghanistan correspondent for the newspaper, and covered the Middle East and European issues based in Paris. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.