The questions came thick and fast, but the woman sitting on the podium in a headscarf and high heels took them all in her stride. The Taliban, the Northern Alliance, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, women’s rights: Fawzia Koofi answered fluently and politely, even to the London School of Economics student who wondered if the Taliban didn’t after all bring a degree of stability to Afghanistan.
Then, just as the session was drawing to a close, a member of the audience asked, with a wry smile: “Some people in the West think it’s natural that the president of Afghanistan be a Pashtun and a man. Please discuss.” The room tittered. Koofi smiled.
The question was both playful and pertinent, for there is perhaps no one better placed to answer it than the small, quietly determined 36-year-old woman who found herself speaking on Friday at London’s Chatham House think tank.
Koofi, a former UN employee who studied, lobbied and fought her way to being elected as a member of parliament in 2005 and, subsequently, the Afghan parliament’s first female deputy speaker, now has her sights set on the ultimate political prize: the presidency. And, as unlikely as a female leader might seem in a country that still ranks among the worst places in the world for women to live, she is convinced that it is no longer unthinkable. A significant proportion of Afghan society, she said, was now ready for change.
“I think Afghanistan needs new leaders because the same people have been ruling the country for centuries and decades. But the [ordinary] people have changed,” she said, sitting in a low-lit hotel room in London on Thursday. “The silent majority of people want politicians that are committed, that are close to them, that are at their level.”
All over the world, she said, people were discovering that the best examples of “politicians who deliver” were women. Afghanistan, however, presents female MPs with certain logistical challenges that their counterparts in most other countries do not have to face. In her short career Koofi has been subject to two attempts on her life, one in 2010 when gunmen thought to be Taliban riddled her car with bullets while she was cowering inside. The last threat, she said, came two months ago when the national security team warned that the Haqqani network was trying to assassinate her.
Koofi’s memoir, The Favoured Daughter, is punctuated with letters to her two young daughters urging them to be courageous in case, one day, she does not make it home. Yet she remains undeterred.
“My father was killed, my mother passed away, my brothers were killed,” she said. “We paid a high price for being in politics and I may go for that. This is the way I choose to be; this is the road I choose to go. I knew the risk.”
If she does not scare easily, it is perhaps because life has thrown just about everything it can at her already. The 19th of 23 children her father had with his seven wives, she was left out in the sun to die as a newborn baby because her mother could not bear the shame of having given birth to another girl.
She survived, her mother repenting, but her life has been a battle ever since. She looked on as her father beat her mother; she had to plead with her brother to let her go to school and to marry the man of her choice; and she watched her husband slowly die of tuberculosis contracted in a Taliban jail he was sent to because of his links with her political family.