Author Interviews
2:58 am
Wed February 22, 2012

A 'Favored Daughter' Fights For Afghan Women

On the day she was born, Fawzia Koofi nearly died after being left outside in the unrelenting Afghan sun. But against all odds, Koofi survived and went on to become Afghanistan's first female deputy speaker of Parliament. Today, Koofi's name is floated in discussions about whether Afghanistan is ready for a first female president.

In her new memoir, The Favored Daughter, Koofi describes the hardship of being a woman in Afghanistan. She says it isn't hard to understand why her mother was distraught to learn that she'd given birth to another girl: Her husband, who was a member of Parliament himself, had recently married a much younger woman, and Koofi's mother hoped to regain his love by giving birth to a son.

"To give birth to a girl in Afghanistan — especially when you don't have a son — having more girls means your life is not complete," Koofi tells NPR's Renee Montagne. Koofi's mother later explained why she almost let her daughter die: "She said, 'I didn't want to have another girl to suffer as much as I suffered.' ... I think that her love gave me the strength to move forward, that her love replaced the first day of ignorance."

During Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s, the streets were war zones, but Koofi's mother made sure that her daughter went to school. "My mother was afraid like many mothers in that situation would've been," Koofi says. "She would come out of the apartment when I'd come back from school late ... and tell me, 'If the class or school makes you president, I don't want you to be president. I want you to be alive.' "

Going to school at that time was a struggle, but education was at least still a possibility. Once the Taliban took power, women were prevented from attending school entirely. "I could've been a medical doctor now," Koofi says, imagining what her life would have been without the Taliban. "I could see in front of my eyes, that Afghanistan's talent and capacity — 55 percent of the society which is women are deprived of all this progress. And that was a disaster for the country's future."

Prevented from continuing her education, Koofi had few options beyond getting married. But even after her wedding, the Taliban continued to intrude into her life. They arrested her husband only 10 days after they were married; the celebratory henna tattoos on the newlyweds' hands hadn't even faded yet.

"The only crime my husband committed was that he married me, and I come from a political family," says Koofi. She remembers provoking an outburst from a member of the Taliban while attempting to visit her imprisoned husband. She had forgotten to remove her nail polish, and when she got to the jail, "this Taliban guy picked up a stone and wanted to beat me. ... I started crying ... I forgot who I was for one moment."

The Taliban were driven from power in 2001. But today, many argue that negotiating with the group and incorporating them into the government is crucial for ensuring the success of Afghanistan's fledgling democracy.

"We need to talk," Koofi agrees, "because we are living in the 21st century and dialogue and engagement politically is a solution." But she's wary of giving the Taliban too much credibility, and doesn't believe that they'll ever be able to share power. She predicts the Taliban would demand their own conditions and strip women of basic human rights yet again — which the world would perceive as "an Afghan problem."

"We cannot have double standards around the world," Koofi says. "We cannot say women in the United States deserve to go to school, but women in Afghanistan — it's their problem if Taliban doesn't allow them."

And, Koofi points out, not everyone agrees that the Taliban is a political group or should be treated as such. Many consider it to be a terrorist organization, and she argues that granting it a legitimate political identity may be dangerous. "I hope we will not repeat the same mistakes of 1989 when the Soviets met with the Mujahedeen group," Koofi says. "They gave them a lot of privileges, and at the end, the Mujahedeen got to power."

As a female politician who regularly criticizes the Taliban, Koofi knows that she faces real danger on a daily basis. "One day when I wanted to go to my constituents, I received this news that my helicopter might be attacked by Taliban," she recalls. Keeping this reality in mind, Koofi begins each chapter of her memoir with a letter to her own daughters.

"In case I don't come back, these are the values that they should follow," Koofi explains. She urges her daughters to "stand on their values, and if that takes their life, it's worth it because at the end of the day you paved the way for others to come forward."

Koofi says that she plans to run for the presidency in two years. She believes that if she doesn't, the same corrupt, visionless politicians who've run the country for decades will stay in power. "We need to come forward [and] at least raise our voices," she says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Fawzia Koofi has been a deputy speaker of Afghanistan's parliament, a first.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

She's the first woman in her political family to rise to power and now she's being talked about as, potentially, Afghanistan's first woman president.

MONTAGNE: None of this could have been foreseen on the day of her birth.

INSKEEP: Koofi was among the last of 23 children born to the seven wives of her father. He served in Afghanistan's parliament for many years, beginning back when Afghanistan still had a king.

MONTAGNE: Though daughters weren't valued – only sons counted – in the remote province of Badakhshan, the young Fawzia's life was comfortable, charmed even. It was a place of rushing rivers, beautiful mountain peaks, a home with a garden shaded by a black cherry tree. Then her father was killed trying to broker peace between the Mujahideen and the Soviet-backed Afghan government.

FAWZIA KOOFI: I remember many of the community and their understanding of it, they thought on that day the sky has come down. It's like it's an empty world.

MONTAGNE: Barely three years old, Fawzia Koofi suddenly faced a life of hardship, but also freedom that her father would never have allowed. She's now out with a memoir, "The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight To Lead Afghanistan Into The Future." It begins: the day I was born, I was supposed to die.

Your mother left you to die.

KOOFI: Yes, you know, to give birth to a girl in Afghanistan is – and especially when you don't have a son - having more girls means your life is not complete. And that's how it's regarded in Afghanistan. You have to have a son to complete your life.

But my mother was not happy, because my father had just married somebody – a very young wife – so my mother wanted to basically gain the love of my father, regain the love of my father by having a son.

And when I was born, she – they put me out in the sun and finally they realized that I'm about to die. I'm crying, so my mother – this was the point my mother realized that I'm about to die so she hold me – she always was telling me the story, but I think she gave me a good reason. She said I did not want to have another girl to suffer as much as I suffered.

MONTAGNE: But it's interesting, then, I wonder if that bond she forged with you at that moment was one of the things that allowed her to encourage you so much when you wanted to do something that really nobody was doing. You know, you're in a province that's pretty far away and you wanted to go to school, and your mother was behind that.

KOOFI: That's true. My mother was always proud of that. She will always tell me that you will become something in the future. You know, my mother would always describe my childhood as a little red mouse. So...

MONTAGNE: 'Cause you were so tiny at birth and then terribly sunburned, so you sort of were a little red mouse.

KOOFI: So I'm sure she would have been proud to see the little red mouse is now grown up and I think her laugh gives me the strength to move forward.

MONTAGNE: During Afghanistan's civil war, back in the early '90s, and this is Mujahideen fighting each other for power in Kabul, and basically, day after day of rockets and snipers and people dying - you managed to get to school, and your mother was always afraid you wouldn't come home.

KOOFI: Um-hum. My mother was afraid, like many mothers in that situation would have been afraid, so she would come out of the apartment when I come back from school late, because there was no transportation so it took me a while to walk. And my mother would come out of the apartment with her burkha, and tell me, if the class or school makes you president, I don't want you to be president. I want you to be alive.

MONTAGNE: President of the country?

KOOFI: That's what she said. I don't want you to become president. I want you to be alive first. But the thing is, that even with all of that rocket and snipers and everything, still women and girls could go to school.

In Taliban regime, completely opposite. Taliban basically stopped women and stopped me from going to school. I could've been a medical doctor now. I could see in front of my eyes, that Afghanistan's talent and capacity - 55 percent of the society, which is women, are deprived of all this progress. And that was a disaster for the country's future. And that's what Taliban did.

MONTAGNE: When the Taliban were driven out in 2001, it would be women like you who stood to gain the most from that. In fact, you have gone on to, in a way, bring back the Koofi political dynasty.

KOOFI: That's true.

MONTAGNE: What do you make, then, of the talk, which is now quite loud, about negotiating with the Taliban? That seems to be the presumption that the future will include the Taliban in government.

KOOFI: It's a very important question. We need to talk, because we are living in 21st century and dialogue and engagement, politically, is a solution. I know in your capitals, in your country, among your public issues like women's rights, human rights is not the main reason you are in a partisan, but this is one of the achievements you have invested blood and treasure for.

And so I think for that reason we need to talk. We need to go to a political settlement, but there are different definitions of political settlement. What President Karzai would like to have is basically bring Taliban back, share power with them. I don't think Taliban would like to share power.

Taliban have their own conditions. They want Islamic rights of woman, and living in the Taliban as a Muslim woman I know what does that mean. I think the office in Qatar is a step forward in terms of...

MONTAGNE: When you speak of Qatar, that is where the Taliban is now setting up an office, an actually official place to go and give them a certain amount of credibility as a political entity.

KOOFI: But we need to be careful, in terms of not giving Taliban an added political identity, because not many people in the world agree the Taliban are a political group. Many people believe that they are a terrorist group, so why should we give them an identity by having an office and increasing their access to (unintelligible) resources, to more money?

MONTAGNE: You know, Fawzia Koofi, you begin this memoir with something very touching. Each chapter begins with a letter to your daughters. And the letter is often to do with the fact that you might not see them again as you go out into the world as a woman and a politician. How much danger are you in?

KOOFI: I speak my mind because I would like to make a small contribution to my people's life. And one day when I wanted to go to my constituents, I received this news that my helicopter might be attacked by Taliban.

So I – you know, we have traditionally this tradition to put farewell letters. And I wrote this first letter to my daughters, saying that in case I don't come back, these are the values that they should follow. One of that is to stand on their values, and if that takes their life, it's worth it because, you know, at the end of the day you paved the way for others to come forward.

MONTAGNE: Are you – the presidential election in Afghanistan is in two years. Are you running for president?

KOOFI: I hope so, because I think if you don't run then people like the corrupt politician who don't have a vision for the country will always be leading Afghanistan. For the past 30, 40 years they're the same politicians, the fathers and the sons and the nephews and the brothers, and et cetera. They're ruling the country. So we need to come forward, at least raise our voices.

MONTAGNE: Fawzia Koofi, thank you very much for joining us.

KOOFI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Fawzia Koofi is a member of Afghanistan's parliament. Her memoir is called "The Favored Daughter."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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