Fawzia Koofi (45), the Member of Parliament from Afghanistan, has survived several assassination attempts by the Taliban.
“The Taliban dislike women holding such powerful positions in government as I do, and they dislike my public criticisms even more. They often try to kill me”, she writes in her memoir, ‘ The Favoured Daughter’.
Despite this, she is negotiating for peace, as one of the only two women in the pan Afghan delegation, in talks with the hardline Islamic group for the future of Afghanistan.
Throughout her life, Fawzia Koofi, has beaten the odds.
As a newborn, she survived after being left in the sun for several hours by her mother, as her conservative family, which had 19 daughters from her father’s two wives, did not want another daughter. As a medical student at the top of her class, she was forced to quit studies when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in the 1990s. Soon after the fall of the Taliban regime, Koofi joined politics.
33 years after the conflict, when Afghanistan established its first elected democratic parliament in 2005, Koofi was elected to the Wolesi Jirga-the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly from Badakhshan province in Northern Afghanistan. She was elected as the first female Vice President of the National Assembly in the same year.
Fawzia Koofi could have been the first female president of Afghanistan. However, she was forced to drop out of the contest for the highest office in the country after the Election Commission changed the registration date, which disqualified her for being under the age of 40.
A passionate women’s rights activist, Fawzia Koofi started the ‘Back to School Campaign’ in Afghanistan for ensuring the right to education for girls after the fall of the Taliban. Since then, she has been a tireless campaigner for the freedoms and future for the women and girls in Afghanistan.
In 2019, Koofi started her own political party- “Movement Of Change For Afghanistan”- where sixty percent of leadership positions are held by women.
In a two part interview with BehanBox and Women for Politics, Fawzia Koofi talks to us about her life and career in politics in a country that is transitioning from more than three decades of conflict. In the first part, she talks about her journey into politics, the peace negotiations with the Taliban and her agenda for the women and girls and the future of Afghanistan.
In this part, Fawzia Koofi tells us about how her party- Movement of Change in Afghanistan- is making spaces for more women in politics and why it is important to keep believing in one’s purpose in the face of strong winds.
This is part of a new series titled “Women, Power and Politics”, where we bring you conversations with radical and progressive women leaders from across the world. The first edition of the series features women political leaders from the South Asia region.
President Ashraf Ghani announced that all the 34 provinces in Afghanistan will appoint women deputy governors. How do you view this announcement? How much decision-making power will women deputy governors have?
Quotas for women in general, but more specifically in politics at the local level, are important for women in Afghanistan because we did not have the same access to education, economic resources, freedom to access their social and political rights, especially during the Taliban years. We really need to fill the gap by giving quotas and reserve positions.
Being a deputy governor is a good step but that should not deny the fact that women can hold the position of governors too.
Women politicians are often asked questions about family responsibilities which are not asked of male politicians. Have you and other women politicians in Afghanistan experienced this? How do you respond?
I am glad you are asking this question because I think our male counterparts should know what it feels like when people talk to you about your family, outlook and dress as a woman. It’s a global phenomenon that female leaders are hardly judged by their politics or their policies. The conversations are centred around how they dress, their head scarf and even their personal relationships. This is not true for male politicians or any male authority.
In Afghanistan, it is much more serious because it is an Islamic country and much more conservative. People ask questions about marriage and children. Today people know I have two girls but earlier when I talked about my girls they would lament “ Oh, you don’t have a son, we feel sorry for you”.
So we need to have role models who are known both for their work and the spaces they occupy. We have to work many times harder to prove our abilities. It is very unfair. Being a mother is itself a full time job and when you add other social and political responsibilities in a challenging environment like Afghanistan, can you even imagine how difficult it is?
As a woman in politics, the moment you become stronger you encounter more resistance. They try to create trouble, hurl allegations on a personal level. When I was younger and less experienced, it affected me deeply. Now I see it as a means of strength. This is similar to what Michelle Obama said, “When they go lower, we go higher”. I take it as that.
You have been the target of several assasination attempts by the Taliban, including one at Tora Bora in 2010. How does gender based violence in political spaces in Afghanistan affect women?
Gender based violence is again a global phenomenon, it crosses all cultural and regional boundaries. In Afghanistan too, women who are involved in politics, in social life as an activist or have worked as professionals in the government face gender based violence.
In the Parliament, I brought a law to prevent harassment of women and children, whether at home or in the public sphere. There is a perception that if a woman works in the public sphere, they are the public property and men can harass or abuse her. Gender based violence is happening to women at the political level and sometimes it is used as a means of blackmailing, they try to also use it as a means to weaken the women’s position. I think we have to speak up against this.
Photo Courtesy: Fawzia Koofi’s twitter account
Women politicians across the world encounter disproportionate levels of harrasment, trolling and character assasination. Have you encountered these in your political career and how do you deal with these?
Definitely. The extent and scale of sexism and harassment differs in different regions, from Europe to Asia. But it is there nevertheless.
I have suffered it too. When I was less experienced, they thought they could put me down by creating propaganda and fake messages on social media. Initially it did affect me, but with time, I learnt that it is just a sign of their weakness. Now, everytime I see such slander on social media, I think I have done something good or pressed some sensitive button that they do not like. Over time I think they also realised that they cannot beat me up with those allegations or accusations.
My message is to keep your focus and not be shaken by all these winds. If you are a strong tree with roots then they will not be able to shake you.
What message would you like to give other women who aspire to join politics. How would you support women waiting to occupy more political spaces?
In my own career no male leader supported me. In fact, they doubted my political growth. I have learnt a lot and therefore my focus in my own party as well, would be to promote women, support them and build networks. In ‘Movement Of Change For Afghanistan’, a party I established, almost 60% of the leadership positions are held by women. I try to empower them in political positions and also counsel them. I also provide them help with issues like strengthening legal access. I share their stories, engage with them on social media and along with other civil society and politicians, try to influence the government. Three years ago I advocated that the deputy governor should be a woman and I am glad that the ministry of women’s affairs has promoted and implemented this.
Being in politics for a woman is hard and even harder in a country like Afghanistan, as you mentioned. What did it take to maintain your mental health while encountering all these challenges?
I regularly do yoga and meditation. I think it is important to keep believing in one’s mission and purpose.
There are days when I am completely down, fatigued and wonder if I should continue being in politics. On such days, I feel I should choose a different life and live in a different country. I want to have all the luxuries and freedoms that women in other countries enjoy.
Such thoughts do cross my mind but then I wake up the next day and see that my country needs me. I receive the first call on my phone from a woman or anyone else asking for some help and that increases my determination. It gives me the passion and the reason to be.
For instance, I sent a girl to India for her studies, for which I had to first convince her family, which was not an easy process. She was getting on the plane when her father called and said “Ms Koofi, can you make her out of the plane because people will actually kick me out of the village for sending my girl abroad alone”. I had to tell him that the plane had taken off. Today, she is back in Afghanistan and has started a very good job with the ministry of education with a good salary and now supports the family.
These are the outcomes that keep us moving.
[This is the concluding part of a 2 part interview with Fawzia Koofi. Read the first part here.]
[Additional inputs from Simran Kaur, Prarthana Puthran and Kashish Babbar.]