Dear Shuhra and Shaharzad,
There will be times in your life when all hope and strength leave you. Times when you just want to give up and turn your face away from the world. But my darling daughters, giving up is not something our family does.
Fawzia Koofi, a member of the Afghan parliament since 2002, means every word of this excerpt from a letter that appears early in her new book, The Favored Daughter (originally titled Letters to My Daughter). Her book provides abundant evidence that she means it, and not just because the Koofi family has been a power player in Afghanistan for generations; her father, Abdul Rahman, was a Member of Parliament starting in the 1960s.
Koofi marshals that evidence by simply telling her life story—and, with it, the story of her proud nation.
Like many journalists who are passionate about women’s issues, I’d thought myself relatively well informed about the complex and difficult road Afghan women have traveled, especially during the late-1990s period of Taliban supremacy. But I found quite revelatory Koofi’s vivid recounting of the past 30 years, some of them quite painful. The intermittent letters to her daughters that sprinkle the book set the tone of her telling, and cue the reader in on the author’s basic beliefs—including the version of Islam in which she was raised.
She tells her daughters that Islam proscribes domestic violence, yet she describes how her mother endured beatings from her own husband. Koofi’s mother explained, she writes, that “If a man does not beat his wife then he does not love her. ‘He has such expectations of me and he only beats me when I fail him.'”
Even back then, Koofi adds, her mother expected her daughter to do better than she had. Things were changing during the 1970s. “Women dressed in Western fashions, worked in medicine and served in Parliament,” Suraya Pakzad, founder of the Afghan nongovernmental group Voice of Women, reminded Bloomberg News last year. Pakzad added that women were also soldiers and police officers, saying: “My mother had much more freedom in her time than me. ”
“Unlike my mother, I had an education, one that I was anxious to expand upon. I had opportunities and freedoms,” Koofi writes. “One was the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a burqa—and I chose not to.” The burqa in question, Koofi tells her daughters, is not the ugly blue sack that became the uniform under the Taliban but something more colorful and individually crafted, with different geographic areas featuring different colors and styles.
But then, in Koofi’s life as well as her country’s, war began to transform them all—the Soviet-backed Communist insurgency and Soviet invasion; the subsequent U.S.-fed response of Afghan warlords (known as mujahideen); the emergence of the fundamentalists known as Taliban, and then the U.S. invasion in 2001.
The crackdown on women actually began, Koofi writes, with the rise of the mujahideen in the late 1970’s. Young Fawzia’s desire first to be a doctor, and and then to teach, were smashed as rural warlords took control—and then when the Taliban gained control of most of the country, banishing all women from school and bringing many before courts where their fates were judged by warlords far from home. “Until now, Kabul and those villages had been culturally and socially worlds apart,” Koofi writes of those trials. “Women who had proudly worn the latest fashions and carried books to the university just a few months ago were now being judged by unwashed men who couldn’t read or write.” Koofi’s own family flees Kabul and returns to the countryside of her birth, where Koofi was protected from harm but not from oppression:
My dreams of being a doctor were shattered. By now the Taliban had banned all women from school and university. So even if Kabul were safe enough for us to return to, which it clearly wasn’t, there was zero hope of a return to my studies. Instead my days were spent in Puli Khumri cooking, cleaning, drinking chai in the garden. It was the life of boring drudgery my mother and sisters endured, and the one I had battled so hard to escape. I was very depressed. Days rolled into dusk, into sleepless nights and reluctant mornings when I squeezed my eyes shut to block out the sun and the gaily mocking light of another new day.
Nonetheless, Koofi tells her daughters, she even managed to fall in love with and marry their father, Hamid, though traditional Afghan weddings were banned. “I couldn’t bear the thought of delivering my first baby in Kabul, where the Taliban had banned all female doctors from working and male doctors from treating women,” so they travel to Pakistan for the birth. But matters become worse when Hamid crosses the Taliban and . . .
By now the reader is so absorbed in the story that the pages fly by, as Koofi works to raise two daughters, to try to secure Hamid’s release from prison, and to absorb the losses along the way. When she somehow manages to cajole a young Taliban prison official to help and to secure transport via others, the reader notices that this young mother is also good with people, achieving victories even if a Taliban bigot manages to deliver a beating in between. So when the circle closes in 2001, we are no longer surprised when Koofi is one of the first to run for the new Afghan parliament. She may not have become a doctor, Koofi reflects, but she has learned to teach—and she has inherited some of the charisma of her father. “Fawzia jan,” an aunt tells her, “you will win this election and take your seat in the parliament. You will win it for them. It was not a statement of my abilities,” Koofi writes. “It was an order. The Koofi political dynasty was about to rise once again.”
As the narrative swirls from history to current events, the book begins to feel less like a war memoir and more a political/campaign book, like President Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. From the rural elections in which her famous name coaxes many to the polls to her successful fight to become the first female deputy speaker, she is less afraid to try than that others will get in the way of her destiny. And just like those other books, the latter section contains specific and pointed policy statements, from how to promote women’s education to the dangers she sees in the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The next major election in Afghanistan is scheduled for 2014. As we all know from the headlines, the uncertainties about the time between now and then are legion. But whatever becomes of Hamid Karzai’s government, Fawzi Koofi is already a declared candidate for president. It might be foolish, judging from this book, her Web site, and the interview below, to bet against her. After all, she’s the “favored daughter” of the book’s ironic title — left for dead at first by a mother despairing at yet another daughter, then cherished as the precious leader she became.