How Fawzia Koofi flourished in a man's world

How Fawzia Koofi flourished in a mans world
Leading Afghan women's rights champion, author, lawmaker and presidential hopeful Fawzia Koofi has a revealing anecdote about life as a woman in a man's land. As she walked out of the Presidential Palace in Kabul recently, a conservative male parliamentary colleague approached her and said, 'Ms Koofi, if you would really like to live in a palace - because you are running for the presidency - why don't you get married to a president?' Even now, weeks later, Koofi's steady brown eyes flash at the memory.

'It really made me feel angry, because that's how they see it,' Koofi said in an interview in her Kabul home. 'If a woman would like to become a president it's not because she's qualified for it, it's because she would like to live in a palace!' In a riposte, she told her colleague pointedly that, unlike some men with dubious pasts in Afghanistan's 30 years of conflict, she had no need to hide in the security of a palace.

'I'm happy sometimes when they oppose me because it means I'm something to them, they feel I am strong - and I also give them the required punch, I think.' Named this year as one of the world's '150 Fearless Women' by US website The Daily Beast, Koofi, 36, is a widow with two young girls who are addressed in her memoir.

It is a tale of courage and passion in the face of the overwhelming challenges faced by a girl growing up in a country sometimes called the worst place in the world to be a woman. She was left in the sun to die immediately after her birth by her exhausted and depressed mother - one of seven wives in a family of 23 children - who knew that another girl would not win her husband's approval, she writes.

The baby Koofi lay alone, screaming and sunburned, for almost a day until pity prevailed and she was returned to her repentant mother - to start a close and loving relationship. The sunburn scars lasted into her teens, but they - and any psychological scars - are undetectable in this elegant and confident woman in a pale pink headscarf and cream tunic over matching trousers.

Pictures of two men find space on the walls of Koofi's rented home near the parliament: one a portrait of a stern-faced father, the other shows her and President Hamid Karzai. Her father - a politician who was murdered when Koofi was just three - spoke directly to her only once, and that was to tell her to go away, she writes in her memoir.

And she is not a fan of Karzai. She accuses the president - who is backed by 130,000 NATO troops - of being prepared to compromise on women's rights for political gain among conservatives, including Taliban insurgents. The Taliban, ousted from power in a US-led invasion in 2001, banned girls from going to school, whipped women in the street if they wore anything other than the all-enveloping burqa and stoned to death those accused of adultery.

Even now there are more guns than women on the streets of Kabul. But Koofi - who managed to get a good education against the odds - says the past 10 years have provided 'golden opportunities' for women. Her biggest fear is that these gains will be the first to be sacrificed in efforts to bring the Taliban into reconciliation talks, and perhaps even a sharing of power after NATO troops pull out in 2014.

'Compromise is happening already. Talibanisation is a process, people within government are already promoting Taliban ideology and Taliban thinking,' she said. 'There is great uncertainty and confusion about the future, and worry and concern among women.' In March, Karzai indicated support for an edict by the Ulema Council, the nation's highest Islamic authority, saying 'men are fundamental and women are secondary'.

'Lots of things have changed for the good for women. There has been lots of progress for women in the political arena, girls in school and higher education, laws providing protection for women. Having said that, Afghanistan is still the worst place in the world to be a mother, and there are still a lot of women suffering from domestic violence and torture even,' she said. 


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