Published by Palgrave Macmillan
“On the day I wrote the letter [that became chapter 1 in this book] I was warned not to travel because there had been a credible threat that the Taliban planned to kill me by planting an improvised explosive device (a roadside bomb) underneath my car. 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.”
Fawzia Koofi’s life is an incredible one. From being almost abandoned as a baby, she rose to become the first woman Deputy Speaker of Afghanistan’s lower house of Parliament, the Wolesi Jirga. As a Member of Parliament, Koofi has risked her life to fight for women’s rights and girls’ education in her country.
This book, published in 2012, is not only her autobiography but also a series of letters to her two young daughters.
Born in 1975, Koofi lived through some of Afghanistan’s most tumultuous times: the overthrow of the monarchy; communist rule; Soviet invasion; the civil war that followed; the Taliban in power; the US bombing of Al Qaida; and the restoration of democracy under Hamid Karzai.
Koofi’s story is also the story of her country.
Born in Badakhshan, a remote region in north-eastern Afghanistan, Koofi was her father’s nineteenth child, born of his second wife (he had seven). When her mother realized she had given birth to “just a girl”, she turned away from the baby, especially as her husband’s new wife had just had a son. Girls counted for nothing in Badakshan’s conservative society. The birth had been difficult, so while the midwives focused on saving her mother, Koofi was left out in the baking sun for almost a day. But she survived. Her mother, horrified at her state and amazed at finding her child still alive, took her in her arms. From then on, Koofi became her mother’s favourite.
When she was five, Koofi’s father—an MP in Afghanistan’s first parliament, set up by King Zahir Shah—was killed by the mujahideen when he went to negotiate with them. This was the first of many tragedies in her life. Her husband Hamid, a gentle intellectual, was imprisoned without reason by the Taliban and beaten. He developed tuberculosis, which eventually killed him. Her beloved brother Muqim was murdered by an assassin carrying an AK-47.
The centre of the family was Koofi’s mother, who was trusted implicitly by her husband and relied on to help, not only in family matters, but also in political organizing. That, however, did not stop him from beating her, something that was accepted at the time. Koofi’s mother continued to love him, and after he died, she came into her own, managing the family and its resources and making decisions. She supported Koofi’s education throughout.
When Hamid Karzai became president in 2004, Koofi decided to stand for parliament from Badakshan. She campaigned on women’s issues and social justice. Women in the villages gave her an enthusiastic reception because she spoke about problems that affected them. She won the election by a thousand votes. Many of the men who voted for her remembered her father and the work he had done for the region.
Chapters on the Taliban in Afghanistan were the hardest to read. The Taliban changed their rules all the time, so it was difficult to know what was permitted and what would lead to arrest. It was a particularly hard time for women. The Taliban refused to let women be examined by male doctors, but would not allow women doctors to practice. This left half the country’s population without medical care.
In this book, the reader gets a sense of what Koofi went through. During the civil war, she would dodge bullets to attend English classes. After her brother was killed, her mother would visit his grave every night. Koofi would go to the graveyard and bring her mother home—at a time when women were not supposed to be out by themselves.
I found this book a harrowing read. I lived in Afghanistan as a child in the early 1970s and remember the Afghans as a strong, large-hearted and fiercely independent people. Some years ago, I met Fawzia Koofi and found her to be a brave woman, determined to make a difference in spite of personal tragedies and constant threats.
When the book was published, there was hope for the country. At the time of writing, the Taliban have returned to power after the departure of Western allies. Whatever progress was made on women’s rights in Afghanistan has been undone.
My hope is that Afghanistan finds its way back to democracy again.
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See also The Places in Between.
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