Thu, Feb 28, 2019 - Page 5 News List

Afghanistan: ‘I felt powerful’: Afghan trailblazer who confronted Taliban leaders on women

AFP, KABUL

Afghan lawmaker Fawzia Koofi listens during an interview at her home in Kabul on Monday last week.

Photo: AFP

Fawzia Koofi was hesitant to face the Taliban militants who jailed her husband, threatened to stone her for wearing nail polish and — when she became a high-profile lawmaker and women’s rights champion — tried to assassinate her.

However, the trailblazing politician and mother of two daughters could not refuse a rare invitation this month to stand before her oppressors, and declare unequivocally that their brand of misogyny and prejudice would never again take root in Afghanistan.

“It was not that I wanted to do it, but I was doing it for the women of Afghanistan,” she told reporters in an interview at her Kabul home.

“I felt powerful. It was a room full of people, all male... For me, it was important that I make myself visible and my message clear to them,” she said.

Koofi was one of just two Afghan women invited to a grand hotel in Moscow earlier this month for informal meetings with the Taliban.

The talks came days after other, separate negotiations between the militants and the US in Qatar raised expectations of a breakthrough in the 17-year conflict.

Washington, which resumed talks with the Taliban in Doha on Monday, is seeking a way out of its longest war — but Afghans and many observers fear a hasty departure could see the Taliban return to power, or the country fracture into civil war.

Many women, in particular, are afraid of being forced back under Taliban rule, beneath burqas and behind walls, without access to education or jobs.

In Moscow, in scenes unthinkable under the Taliban regime, the mullahs sat in silence as Koofi defended her daughters’ rights to thrive in a modern Afghanistan, free from harsh limitations.

The other 48 delegates at the unprecedented conference in the Russian capital were all men, Afghan political heavyweights and bearded Taliban officials, none used to being addressed so assertively by a woman.

“You cannot just put her in her house and deprive her, like you did me, seeing the world through the small window of their burqas,” Koofi said, recalling her defiant speech before the delegation. “She has now much more connectivity. She will not go back to your time.”

One of Koofi’s fellow passengers on the flight to Moscow was the Taliban’s head of vice and virtue — the dreaded moral police who cruised the streets in white pickup trucks flogging women accused of indecency.

“I remember how dangerous ... the Hilux pickup car sound was to every woman when we heard it. That sound is still in my ears,” the 44-year-old widow said.

“I tried to be friendly with him, and I tried to be open and cool. I didn’t try to hide my hair, or whatever... I was just making fun, trying to tell them ‘you might not be happy the way I am, but I am the way I am,’” she said.

Not everyone was pleased Koofi was given a seat at the table in Moscow.

Squarely in the minority, she had to lobby to get into smaller discussion circles.

At an official news conference, she was stuck at the back, given no chance to speak while the men addressed foreign media at the front.

However, that was nothing new for the female lawmaker, who has developed a thick skin in a country often described as the most dangerous in the world to be a woman or a politician — let alone both.

However, one fight she did not take up in Moscow was the Taliban’s outright refusal to consider a female president for Afghanistan.

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