Fawzia Koofi, the female politician who wants to lead Afghanistan

Though disallowed from the 2014 presidential race, Fawzia Koofi is optimistic about her political career in Afghanistan. Yet it is not clear what will happen to the state of women's rights before the next one.

Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous places anywhere in the world to be a woman, or to be a politician, and Fawzia Koofi, a deputy speaker of its national assembly, is both.

At least once a week, she receives a death threat from the Taliban or a warning from the security services about plots to assassinate her. In 2010 her convoy came under attack by gunmen as she was travelling with her two teenage daughters near Tora Bora. Although one of her guards was injured, Koofi was unharmed and she sounds remarkably unfazed.

“We’ll all die one day, and if we die doing something good, that’s a big achievement,” she tells me when we speak on the phone. Despite the risks, she plans to run for the Afghan presidency in 2018.

Koofi had been hoping to join the 2014 presidential race, but the minimum age to run for the post is 40, and she was still only 39 when candidates registered earlier this year. She thinks this isn’t fair, but is determined to put a positive spin on it: she says she believes that Afghan society will be more tolerant by 2018.

There are signs, however, that life could be becoming harder for Afghan women. Although Afghanistan’s national assembly boasts a greater proportion of women than the UK parliament (28 per cent against our 23 per cent), the quota for women has been decreased from a quarter to a fifth. The International Crisis Group reports that since responsibility for law and order moved from Isaf troops to Afghan national security services, attacks on women have been increasing. Already, 87 per cent of Afghan women have suffered psychological, sexual or physical violence, a UN survey says.

Insurgents have targeted women’s rights activists. In July – and again in September – the most senior policewoman in Helmand was shot and killed. In August, two MPs were attacked; another was kidnapped by the Taliban for three weeks. In July, the MP Noor Zia Atmar moved into a shelter to escape her abusive husband.

The odds have been stacked against Koofi since birth. When she was born, her disappointed relatives, who wanted a boy, left her out in the sun to die until her mother was well enough to rescue her. Her father was an MP who built the first school in the village but forbade his daughters to study there. When Koofi was three he was assassinated by the mujahedin. She persuaded her family to allow her to study and would have become a doctor, if the Taliban hadn’t taken control in her first year in medical college and banned women from it. Her husband, a university professor, was arrested by the Taliban and died in 2003 from tuberculosis he contracted in prison.

“The discrimination and the injustice I faced during the Taliban gave me the strength and the motivation to want to change something,” she says. When the Taliban fell in 2001 she launched a political campaign to promote girls’ education and four years later she won her first seat in parliament.

She wants to improve the lives of Afghan women as president, and to clamp down on corruption, strengthen the rule of law and help define a “moderate Islam, with which we can create a longer-term strategic partnership with the world, and create an atmosphere and environment in which people can enjoy their lives”. Koofi’s greatest fear now is that, after international troops withdraw in 2014, the Taliban will regain the upper hand.

She hopes above all that her work will allow her daughters to have an easier life. “I always tell them to be brave and to make sure they are educated, because a girl’s education is the most important thing in her life,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if I wasn’t educated, and whatever happens to me, they must continue their education.”

Face of change: Fawzia Koofi is a deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman. She is on Twitter as @SEMcBain.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR