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18 December 2013

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.

By Sophie McBain

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.

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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.”