No, Fawzia does not give up easily; she couldn’t even if she wanted to. Having two teenage daughters does not give her much choice but to move forward and continue fighting for a more liberal Afghanistan. She does not want her children to live the kind of life she had as a teenager.
Her plans came to a halt when the Taliban rose to power in the mid-1990s. Fawzia, who endured daily taunts from her male siblings just to be able to go to school, had to give up her dream of becoming a doctor. The Taliban bombed schools and prohibited girls from mingling with men or roaming freely in public. What could have been a vibrant country teeming with talented young people like Fawzia was instead frozen in terror.
She had to wear a burqa, the traditional clothing for women so no parts of their bodies can be seen by anyone in public. It was heavy, and not the least bit comfortable. Fawzia stays motivated to keep up the good fight simply by looking at her daughters, who are free to wear jeans and become the free-spirited girls they deserve to be.
Death threats are unfortunately common for Fawzia, and they do not catch her off-guard. She has left a memoir for her daughters, as well as all other women, in case one of the groups who wanted her dead succeeds. She’s ready, and she knows it’s for the good of her people and her loved ones.
If you think that your life is boring, think about Fawzia’s. She has to live every single day with the thought of dying at any time. But if you think she hides constantly in her home, frightened for her life and her kids’ safety, you would be wrong. If anything, she feels compelled to keep the issue abuzz in the hopes of raising further awareness of the equal share of women in democracy. Fawzia is not giving up; not even if it means going against powerful and unforgiving extremist groups. She’s not scurrying from bullets. She will keep fighting to educate women, and the general public, about how society can be transformed if women’s rights are respected.
How can there be democracy in a country where a woman has no say in who she wants to marry? What freedom is there for a woman who is permanently mutilated just because she has turned down a suitor? Is there any justice in prohibiting women from choosing the career they want so they can realize their dreams and contribute to society?
These issues take precedence on Fawzia’s political platform; as a proud mother and politician, she will not be silenced by threats. What her opponents do not realize is that Fawzia has long succeeded. Try as they might, they won’t be able to change history. For what it’s worth, Fawzia has nothing to lose.
Surviving the Sun
Fawzia Koofi was born to a Member of Parliament who had seven wives. She was his daughter with his second wife, the most influential of all the women in his life. Fawzia was born in either 1975 or 1976; it is unclear. Her mother’s marriage to her father was, like those of most women in her country, arranged. Her mother loved her husband, however, even though he beat her over petty mistakes.
The family had grown to 18 kids, and Fawzia’s mother was pregnant with the 19th. It was about that time when the seventh wife joined the family. Her mother was only 14 years old at the time, and panicked upon hearing the news of his new wife. She was already jealous of the other women in her husband’s life; having even more competition was anything but encouraging.
From then on, she always looked for new ways to get back her husband’s affection. Perhaps being pregnant made her more sensitive; she was not entirely her healthy self throughout the pregnancy. She only had one prayer, however: that her baby would be a boy.
After hours of grueling labor, she finally gave birth. She was so excited to regain her husband’s attention by giving him another son. But, when the midwife told her she had given birth to a girl, her world came crashing down. She refused to hold her daughter in her arms.
Her relatives, unsure of what to do, left the infant to die under the scorching sun. Her cries were muffled by the buzz of people doing chores around her; no one paid the baby any attention. When her mother finally came to her senses, her instincts kicked in and she went looking for her newborn. As weak as she was from giving birth, she still rescued Fawzia in time.
The baby survived, but not without sustaining third-degree burns. The scar, however, would lighten in time.
Fawzia would never get to know her father; he was shot and killed in his own home by the Mujahedeen. As she was only 3 ½ years old at the time, she can no longer remember the incident. When the attack happened, his entire family ran; they survived, but with the head of the family gone, there was very little hope for Fawzia. Nevertheless, her mother eventually found the courage to send her daughter to school.
Fawzia loved to learn. She literally remembers bombs going off over her head on her way to her English lessons, and her mother would always wait for her to return and chide her for coming home late. In Afghanistan, women are not supposed to be sent to school; they are regarded as sub-humans who are not equal to men. But Fawzia never took her sights off school, as she knew it was her gateway to liberation.
Fawzia was the only female in her family who was interested in school, and her mother stood up for her when it was questioned by other relatives. Fawzia loved her mother for that, and harbored no ill feelings towards her. She understood how terrifying it would have been to give birth to a daughter knowing the kind of life that awaited her.
When she was 11 years old, her family left her hometown in the Badakhshan province and moved to Kabul. It was there where Fawzia was introduced not only to women who wore fashionable clothing, but the modern world in general.
Fawzia was a teenager when her closest brother was shot and killed by unknown men. The murder remains unsolved, and it’s unfortunate that this is no surprise in Afghanistan, where the law of the land is poorly-enforced. In another tragedy, Fawzia then lost her mother shortly after.
The Reign of the Taliban
The year 1996 was traumatic for Fawzia. She was studying to be a doctor when the Taliban decided that women should no longer go to school, bringing her dreams to a halt. Her school, like many other institutions in Afghanistan, was bombed. Her marriage, however, had been arranged long before then – thankfully to somebody she liked: her groom was Hamid, an engineer and chemistry teacher. While most relatives approved of the marriage, some of her brothers opposed it. They believed she should have married someone who was also into politics. The couple finally wed ten years later.
Ten days after the wedding, Hamid was taken by armed men when they could not find Fawzia’s brother (her brother was a police commander for the Mujahedeen government). Fawzia did not relent until they released Hamid. They did, but only to incarcerate him soon after. When they finally let him go, he had already contracted tuberculosis while imprisoned, and it was too late to cure him. He died shortly after.
Fawzia’s Foray into Politics
Being an educated woman, Fawzia was commissioned to help the United Nations Children's Fund in 2002 as a child protection officer. That was when she was exposed to politics.
Despite protests from her relatives, she ran for a seat in the Parliament and was successful. She secured a seat at the “Wolesi Jirga,” Afghan National Assembly’s Lower House for the Badakhshan district. It’s one of the poorest provinces in Afghanistan in which many women die during childbirth due to neglect.
Fawzia was elected as the Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament, the first woman to do so in the history of Afghanistan. That’s when the threats started coming; she began receiving calls from people who wanted her dead simply because she was causing a stir as a female leader.
The threats soon materialized in real attacks; the most terrifying would be the 2010 attack, which lasted 30 minutes and resulted in two of her bodyguards being murdered.
“Letters to my Daughters”
Realizing how dangerous life had become for her and her teenage daughters, Shuhra and Shaharzad, she wrote a book and titled it “Letters to my Daughters.” It is a memoir which recounts what she has gone through in life to make women understand the value of what she is fighting to achieve.
Every time she leaves home, she’s not entirely certain if she will make it back. She has left instructions to her kids, telling them to value education as their ticket to empowerment. Without education, she tells them, she herself would be nothing.
She also co-wrote another book, “The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future,” with Nadene Ghouri. Hers was a journey of love, hope, sorrow and success, and Fawzia knows the world could use more women like her.
So, she will run for Afghanistan’s Presidential seat in 2018. If it’s her destiny, then no assassination attempt will stop her from becoming her country’s first woman president.
Organizations and Programs Supported
- “Back to School” Campaign
- Wolesi Jirga
Awards and Achievements
- 2002-2004: Worked for UNICEF as a child protection officer
- 2005: Elected to the “Wolesi Jirga”
- 2009: Selected as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum
- 2010: Re-elected in the Parliamentary elections
- Became the first female Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament in the history of Afghanistan
- Elected M.P. from a total of 69 female members of the Assembly
- Advocates for children's and women's rights
- Published “Letters to my Daughters”
Wikipedia (Fawzia Koofi)
NPR (A 'Favored Daughter' Fights For Afghan Women)
NPR (Excerpt: The Favored Daughter)
ABC News (Guests of First Lady Laura Bush)
The Telegraph ('The Taliban want to kill me. But I am fighting for my daughters’ freedom’)
The Atlantic (Fawzia Koofi)
The Globe and Mail (Fawzi Koofi: The face of what Afghanistan could be)
Bloomberg (Afghan Widow on Taliban Hit List Eyes Presidency as U.S. Exits)
Vancouver Weekly (LETTERS TO MY DAUGHTERS: A Memoir, By Fawzia Koofi – Book Review)
New Statesman (Fawzia Koofi, the female politician who wants to lead Afghanistan)
CNN (In Afghanistan, a mother bravely campaigns for president)
CNN (Saving Face: The struggle and survival of Afghan women)
The Guardian (We don't want our burqas back: women in Afghanistan on the Taliban's return)