Through threats, danger, Afghani woman angling to be country's first female prime minister

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Fawzia Koofi is in the committee that is examining legislation outlawing violence against woman. (Photo by Laura Lynch)

 Story from PRI's The World. Listen to the above audio for a complete report.

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From the day she was born, Fawzia Koofi’s life has been marked by a struggle to survive.

Hers is a life story that in many ways mirrors the history of Afghanistan over the last three decades. Now she is embracing a new dream for herself and her country. Koofi wants to become the next president.

Koofi’s story, the story of a life lived on the edge of death in Afghanistan, begins with a letter written to her two daughters.

Dear Shurha and Shahrazad,

Today, I am going on political business to Faizabad and Darwaz. I hope I will come back soon and see you again but I have to tell you I may not. There have been threats to kill me on this trip. Maybe this time these people will be successful.

Koofi’s letter is included in her new memoir. The words are touching, intimate and frightening. It reflects the threats, assassination attempts and danger she has faced throughout her life, most recently from Taliban fighters.

Koofi and her daughters live in a house just off a busy road in Kabul that is choked with traffic day and night.

She invited me to meet her there, behind the high concrete walls. As I approached the front gate, an armed guard apologized for searching my bag.

It is a tense time in Kabul. A senior politician was recently assassinated and when Koofi greeted me, she looked visibly fatigued. She shared a dream she had the night before.

“I couldn’t sleep the whole night and I had different kinds of dreams,” she said. “I believe in dreams. So I dreamed that I could not see. I’m struggling to see.”

Struggling could be a word that defines Koofi’s existence.

As a newborn, the 19th of 23 children in the household, her mother left her out in the sun to die.

Koofi survived that and the trials and violence that followed. In the rugged terrain of the northern province where she grew up, she watched her father beat her mother.

She knew from an early age that politics was a dangerous game.

Her father, a member of the Soviet backed parliament was killed by mujahedeen warriors before she turned four. She also lost her husband and two brothers through the years of conflict.

Now, she has become her father’s political heir.

Another excerpt from the letter

For me, now what I say that if you want to really stick to your values and don’t change on a daily basis, don’t become a political game player you have to pay a price. It means if I want to continue with what I am doing now, I need to see the sacrifice is there in one minute time, in hundred days time, I don’t know... But it is there, I have to keep that in mind.

At a committee meeting inside the heavily fortified parliamentary compound, Koofi’s political skills were on display.

The justice minister arrived for questioning about the condition of women’s prisons, taking his place at the far end of a long conference table. As chairwoman, Koofi dominated the hearing, almost lecturing the minister. She controlled the questioning by handing other committee members written questions she wanted them to ask.

After half-an-hour the minister began banging the table with his hand, defending his attempts to overhaul prisons despite the country’s security challenges.

It is a bit of political theatre, one provoked by Koofi’s interrogation.

Measured in votes, she is a successful politician, having won re-election just last year.

Still, that doesn’t mean she is immune from criticism.

Women’s rights activist Selay Ghaffar believes MPs, women included, are selfish when they should be selfless – it’s all about me, me, me, she said.

“All the topics of discussion in the parliament is to increase their salary to increase the number of bodyguards they have, to give them bulletproof cars, to give them better expense accounts, pocket money,” Ghaffar said. “This is what I am always hearing from our MPs. They are thinking of themselves, rather than what they need to do for their people.”

Koofi bristled at the accusation, saying she does not even own her own home. Displaying a flash of impatience herself, Koofi puts it down to the electorate’s inexperience.

“They expect you to get a passport for them, to get an Iranian or Pakistani visa for them. A job, a school or divorce from their husband. A high position job for their husbands or for themselves, if they are men. If they are police officers in Helmand they want to be shifted to Mazar because it’s more secure. You name it. They want you to help them financially for their marriage. Everything. It’s just such high expectations,” Koofi said.

The expectations seem even higher for a woman aspiring to the presidency, especially a woman who is raising her children alone. In fact, Koofi’s concern for her children could be the only thing that might hold her back.

“This is the only thing that makes me worry sometimes. What happens to my daughters because they don’t have a father as well. Let’s see if God wants me to be the mother of my daughters with all the things I want to do, I will. Otherwise, they will find their way,” she said. “I was three years old when my father was killed. I was 18-years-old when my mother died. We found our way. So my daughters will find their way as well.”

As far as the children are concerned, their mother’s ambitions are cause for both pride and worry.

Twelve-year-old Shaharazad spends time almost everyday working on her mother’s Facebook campaign page. Eleven-year-old Shuhra supports her mother’s political aspirations and admits she too would like to be president of Afghanistan one day.

Though they lost their father at a young age, they have enjoyed lives of relative peace and privilege. Still, it is easy for Shahrazad to summon the memory of the day her mother left that letter.

“One morning I woke up and saw a letter on my pillow. I read it and I started crying. Then Shuhra woke up and we were both crying, because my mom said that if I don’t come back make certain you get an education. We were both crying because we don’t want to lose our mom, “ Shaharazad said.

In many ways, Koofi embodies the Afghan experience of the last decade, of the ways the country has and hasn’t changed.

She plans to run for president, but sometimes still wears the head to toe burka she hates for disguise and protection. Her life is under threat, but she says she worries more about rumors — some have suggested, wrongly, that she goes bare headed outside the country — that could harm her reputation.

The life Koofi wants for her country, for her daughters, still seems a distant dream.

Another excerpt from the letter

Be brave, don’t be afraid of anything in life. All of us human beings will die one day. Maybe today is the day I will die. But if I do, please know it was for a purpose. Don’t die without achieving something. Take pride in trying to help people and in trying to make our country and our world a better place. I kiss you both. I love you both. Your mother.

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