2019-03-07| Women's Rights
Defending women's rights, Afghan trailblazer stares down Taliban representatives
KABUL -- 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 activist -- tried to assassinate her.
Still, the trailblazing politician and mother of two daughters stood before Taliban representatives during a meeting in Moscow last month and declared unequivocally that their brand of misogyny and prejudice would never again take root in Afghanistan.
Koofi will be leaving parliament once the Independent Election Commission (IEC) finalises the votes from the election last October. She did not run for reelection.
Some of President Ashraf Ghani's chief political rivals attended the two-day sit-down, which earned widespread denunciation from Afghans who say that Russia has no sincere intentions of bringing peace to Afghanistan.
For Koofi, however, the meeting gave her the opportunity to face her oppressors.
"It was not that I wanted to do it, but I was doing it for the women of Afghanistan," she told AFP in an interview in Kabul. "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."
Many women, in particular, fear being forced back under Taliban rule, beneath burqas and behind walls, without access to education or jobs.
A life of defiance
At the talks, 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 conference 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 said. "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," said the 44-year-old widow. "That sound is still in my ears."
"I tried to be friendly with him, and I tried to be open and cool," she added. "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."'
Squarely in the minority, she had to lobby to join smaller discussion circles. At the official news conference, she was stuck at the back, given no chance to speak while the men addressed foreign media at the front.
That was nothing new for the female lawmaker, who has developed a thick skin in a country often described as the most dangerous on earth to be a woman or a politician -- let alone both.
'Why should I beg?'
As an unwanted newborn girl, Koofi was left to die in the sun by her exhausted mother, one of seven wives in a family of 23 children.
She lay screaming and sunburned for almost a day until her mother relented and took her back in.
From that moment on she thrived under her mother's love and support, becoming the first girl in her family to attend school. Still, she was forced out of medical college in 1996 as the Taliban stormed to power.
After the US invasion in 2001, she rose in a new Afghanistan to work for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), before entering politics in 2005 and becoming the country's first female deputy speaker of parliament.
She has spent her political life tussling with male parliamentarians trying to water down women's rights and is accustomed to unpopularity.
The attempts on her life include one in 2010, when gunmen fired at her convoy near Tora Bora, injuring one of her bodyguards.
The IEC barred her from running for reelection last year, after it received complaints about her having links with illegal armed groups. She has denied all the accusations against her.
Last July, Afghan special forces arrested Koofi's brother, Nader Shah Koofi, a warlord from Badakhshan.
"My fight is not a very pleasant fight," she said. "It's not something that people like, especially politicians in Afghanistan. I see that as a positive sign. I am perhaps most hated because I make many people unhappy. Which is OK; you cannot make everybody happy."
Koofi said one fight she did not take up in Moscow is the Taliban's outright refusal to consider a female president of Afghanistan.
"Why should I beg them to get what I deserve?," she said. "It is a right that is guaranteed in our constitution. I see myself eligible for any position, regardless of my gender."