Over the last seven years since I first landed boots on ground in Afghanistan, I’ve been told numerous times by smart folks–by fellow soldiers, an active duty brigade commander, government aid workers, even a female colleague fluent in Pashto, and several others–that women in Afghanistan are light years away from social equality, and that any consideration of the plight of women in Afghanistan must take a back seat to security, routing rampant government corruption, building governmental and economic infrastructure, or any other remotely attainable goals. Americans have felt free to speak this view, although I have yet to hear one Afghan say this to me.
For all of you out there who have told me over the years that Afghan women can’t be a priority, I offer the memoir of Fawzia Koofi: The Favored Daughter (Macmillan 2012). Koofi has been an active member of Afghanistan’s parliament since 2005, an increasingly prominent advocate for the rights of women and children in Afghanistan, and she appears to be gearing up as a longshot contender in Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential race. In advance of seeing Fawzia Koofi speak in person in NYC on May 30th, I read her recent memoir and found it to be a profoundly moving argument for women’s continued involvement in the rebuilding and stabilizing of Afghanistan. I simply cannot envision a stable Afghanistan without the active involvement of women at every level.
By simply telling her life story, Koofi counters the idea that the rights of women are–as Taliban propagandists keep repeating–a western idea that is wholly foreign to Afghan culture. Koofi recounts her childhood struggles, from being unwanted on the day she was born (and exposed to near-fatal sunburn) to being reclaimed by her mother as a prized daughter, and the only daughter out of 23 children permitted to go to school as a child. Although her mother had an honored place in the family and was deeply respected by her brothers and her father, Koofi describes how Afghan women nevertheless struggled against the limitations of a conservative culture. But this in no way limited her hopes for an education and a career of helping people. Even during the darkest years of civil war and Taliban rule, Koofi’s determination to improve her life and the lives of her husband and children never waned–and she needed no encouragement outside of Islam, her family, and the values she was raised with to continue fighting on.
Koofi was the 19th child of her father, a beloved tribal leader and member of parliament representing the northern province of Badakhshan. Koofi’s father was brutally murdered in 1978–when Koofi was just 4 years old–by mujahidin as he attempted to negotiate with them on behalf of his community. The lawless fighters then ransacked their home and brutalized her mother and sister, marking the beginning of a lifetime of violence, fear, and tragedy that have been a plague on Afghanistan over the last four decades. Her family took refuge from the mujahidin by fleeing to Kabul, where for a time the city flourished under the relative stability of the Soviet-backed regime, until the Soviet collapse and the end of both Soviet and U.S. aid in 1991. When the support and funding dried up, Kabul again collapsed into civil war, and her family again was imperiled. Her brother Muqim was murdered by mujahidin, and her mother died not long after, still grieving and making daily visits to Muqim’s grave. In the wake of the civil war, the Taliban stormed into Kabul, transforming a devastated metropolis into a brutal, repressive landscape, where women were routinely beaten and murdered, and even men were terrorized into growing long beards for fear that they, too, would be targeted. Koofi risked her own life to hide another brother, Mirshakay, from the Taliban. Her husband Hamid was repeatedly imprisoned by the Taliban without cause, where he was tortured and contracted tuberculosis–a disease that, despite seeking every treatment available, eventually proved fatal. Hamid died at age 35, leaving Koofi a widow and mother of two young girls.
Yet Koofi persisted, and she reflected on what was happening, in full realization that her lot in life was not prescribed by either Islam or Afghan culture. Koofi’s story personalizes the long, winding tragedy that has unfurled in Afghanistan since the 1970s, and it is a fast, page-turning read that, with the help of journalist Nadene Ghouri, smartly bridges the cultural divide and differing perceptions of Afghanistan’s history to illustrate some important truths of what Koofi and so many others have endured. The most important truth is, I believe, the optimism that Koofi yet retains about her country, its people, its culture, and its ability to survive and persist into the future. Afghanistan simply can—and must—do better than all of this recent history.
While the Taliban’s repressiveness has almost become a cliché, it is important to remember just how horrifically repressive they were, the power that they still hold, and their potential yet to damage Afghan society in similar ways if they are not adequately neutralized or contained. In brief descriptions and images, Koofi is able to convey the profound damage inflicted by the Taliban during their ascendant years. She describes fleeing Kabul and the Taliban after her husband’s third release from prison, and heading into the mountains of northern Afghanistan:
Here I was, an educated, ambitious young woman, with her educated, urbane, intellectual, and loving husband. As a couple Hamid and I were what I felt the picture of future Afghanistan should be, yet here I was dressed in a burqa riding on horseback as my long-haired and bearded husband walked beside me through the mountains. This Taliban ideology threatened to shackle my country in the Dark Ages.
She also poignantly described a moment of realization while checking into a hotel in northern Afghanistan of how living for years under Taliban repression had done to her:
I wasn’t the same person I had been–my confidence had evaporated and the daily fear had exhausted my reserves of strength. I stood there quietly, like a good Taliban wife, whereas once I would have been organizing our check-in, inspecting the room, and making sure the porter brought in our bags. Now I was passive, just waiting for my husband to make all the arrangements. It saddened me to realize how much I had changed. Even as a little girl I was a great organizer, it was something my mother would always comment on when we talked about stories of my childhood. The Taliban had taken that confident little girl and determined teenager and turned her into a diminutive, cold, scared, and exhausted woman beneath the invisibility cloak that was her burqa. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to the hotel manager or the owner who waved his greetings cheerily. My attitude toward men had changed. They were cruel and not to be trusted, merely existing to exploit women at the first opportunity. And this terrible shift in my attitude had been done in the name of Islam, but it wasn’t an Islam I recognized. This division between the sexes was not an Islam of peace; it was born of fear and suspicion, not respect as I had been raised to believe.
At home in Badakhshan with her weakened and ill husband Hamid, Koofi worked for an orphanage, then later the United Nations. Hamid’s health continued to deteriorate, but he encouraged her to take every opportunity to help the people of her community while he stayed at home with their daughters. She traveled the countryside and learned that so many families across Badakhshan remembered her father well, deepening her connection with these rural communities and also compelling her to do more and more to serve them.
In 1999, Koofi gave her first public speech at that year’s International Women’s Day celebration in Badakhshan’s provincial capital, where she found herself able to vent her true thoughts about what she and so many of the women she knew—as well as Afghanistan itself—had been forced to endure:
I talked about how women were treated and how the civilians were treated in Kabul during the civil war. I spoke freely, angrily about the strength and power of Afghan women, how during all the atrocities of the civil war, when they had seen husbands and sons murdered and suffered rape and torture themselves, they didn’t lose their strength or their pride. I called them the unstoppable Afghan women.
After U.S. troops routed the Taliban in late 2001, Koofi and her husband moved back to Kabul, where she took on a larger role with UNICEF, taking her frequently to other locations across Afghanistan and increasing her capacity to serve her country—a bittersweet time of growth as she watched her beloved husband fading. Koofi found that even men of the ethnically and culturally different Afghan south could be persuaded to work with her for the greater good of their communities:
I recall one trip to Kandahar, a city that had been the spiritual heartland of the Taliban. When I arrived, the community leaders I was working with barely spoke to me. These were conservative men who had been Taliban supporters. In a few short months they’d gone from Taliban rule to the indignity of a woman turning up and telling them what to do. Gradually I won them over and after a few days we were all cooperating as if we’d always worked together. Even today I stay in touch with some of them and they visit me when they come to Kabul. I truly believe that people change their opinions only from first-hand experience. And opinions on gender can and do change, even among the most conservative men.
A few years later, her immediate family encouraged her to seek a seat in the first Afghan parliament to convene since her father served in the 1970s—but she would have to convince the men of her extended clan to support her if she would have any success. She found, just as the Kandahari men were persuadable, even the most difficult of her family members came around to support her. Was her family unique? Koofi thinks it is possible to see rapid change in the role of women in Afghanistan as they step forward and take more active roles:
I don’t think my family is alone in accepting change this rapidly. I truly believe change in gender attitudes cannot be forced on a country by outside forces, however well meaning those forces are. Change can only come from within and it begins with individual families. I am living proof of this.
Koofi shows further how her personal experience speaks to a grassroots, family-based and community-based change effort. She describes how she won over the conservative male voters of her province:
Convincing male voters, especially the older ones, was harder. In another village I was supposed to give a speech in a mosque, which was the largest building in the place and the only reasonable location. But the speech almost didn’t happen because some of the elders didn’t want me to go inside the mosque. I had to sit in the car while the local men and male members of my campaign team debated it. When they finally decreed I could go inside I was so nervous I forgot to say “In the name of Allah” when I started my speech, a very silly mistake on my part. I expected a hostile response after that. But as I talked I saw some of the old men at the back were crying. They were wrinkled gray-haired men in turbans and traditional long striped coats, and they had tears streaming down their cheeks. After I had finished they told me that they had known my father and that hearing me speak had been a reminder of the passion and sincerity he used to put in his speeches. Hearing them say that made me cry, too.
Hamid died in 2003 after their long battle against his tuberculosis, and she won election to parliament in 2005. In many ways it seems that her political run was a positive way to channel her energies in the face of such a devastating personal loss for her and her young daughters. She has refused to remarry, remaining loyal to the love and memory of her husband. Yet this, and other slanders against her honor, have been used against her:
My opponents, angry at my victory, started a series of viciously untrue slanders. They ranged from the suggestion that I had a rich businessman boyfriend in Dubai who had funded my campaign to the fact that I had lied about my achievements on my resume. But the most hurtful of all was that I had divorced Hamid in order to stand for election and had lied about his death. According to this particularly nasty rumor Hamid was alive and well and living in a mountain village. I was still grieving so badly for my husband that the allegation that I had lied about his death made me shake with rage.
She goes on to say that similar slanders were also made against other women who won seats in parliament to intimidate them, which she sees as part of the greater problem of corruption in Afghanistan’s political system and government:
Many Afghans have given up hope, or maybe resigned themselves to never having an honest government. They have been fed a diet of rubbish politics for 30 years, so it’s no wonder the political health of this nation has suffered. As a country we are politically malnourished, and our growth has been stunted as a consequence. This is beginning to change, though. There is a rare breed of politicians who are listening to the electorate and acting with honesty and integrity. And in doing so they are winning the respect and trust of the people.
These are views that are far too often drowned out by the western media’s hand-wringing over what to do or expect as NATO continues a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. The tide of public opinion in the U.S. seems to be shifting back to where we were in 1991—ranging between a forgetful lack of concern and callous isolationism. Yet such an approach to Afghanistan’s welfare is what brought ruin to families like Koofi’s and a breeding ground for international terrorists like Al Qaeda to infuse themselves and gorge upon the Taliban’s domestic terrorism. Koofi’s memoir is a poignant reminder that change can and does happen, and that nothing positive can happen without the full involvement of women as part of the solution.
Koofi first published her memoir in France under the title “Lettres à mes filles,” and most chapters are prefaced by letters to her two daughters. The letter that I think best encapsulates Koofi’s message for the west is this:
It saddens me so much that many people in the world have a negative view of our country and our culture. The reality is that there are many people who think all Afghans are terrorists or fundamentalists.
They think because our country has so often been at the heart of the world’s strategic battles—wars over oil, the cold war, the war on terror.
But beneath this is a country of great history, of enlightenment, of culture. This was a land where our own warriors built great minarets and monuments. It was even a land where early Islamic kings allowed other faiths to build their own monuments, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. It is a land of mountains and skies that never end, of emerald forests and azure lakes. It is a place where the people show hospitality and warmth like no others. It is also a nation where honor, faith, tradition, and duty know no bounds. This, my dear girls, is a land to be proud of.
Never deny your heritage. And never apologize for it. You are Afghans. Take pride in this. And make it your duty to restore our true Afghan pride to the world.
This is a big duty I ask of you. But it is one your grandchildren will thank you for.
It has become increasingly clear that the empowerment of women is critical to all facets of creating stability in struggling countries, and the U.S. State Department has prioritized this link between stability and women’s empowerment. And it is clear that the solutions must happen at the grassroots level—within families and communities as Fawzia Koofi both exemplifies and advocates. Where is the role of the U.S. and NATO? It starts, I believe, with the support of our own people. We have to believe that it’s worth supporting free and fair electoral processes in Afghanistan, and that it’s worth helping to ensure that Afghanistan’s security forces grow into roles as honest brokers in keeping the peace in Afghan society and keeping the women who step out into public roles safe and alive. And that any dealmaking we broker or support with Taliban elements ensures this as well.
But first, we have to believe.