Breaking Barriers

Will Fawzia Koofi Be Afghanistan's First Female President?

If anyone can make it happen, Fawzia Koofi can. Left out to die in the sun as a baby girl, she became the first female deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament. The author of the new memoir The Favored Daughter tells her searing story.

Virginia Mayo / AP Photo

The day I was born was the day I was supposed to die.

No one, not even my mother, wished me to survive. The reason? I was just another of the hundreds of unwanted girl babies born in Afghanistan every day.

My mother was exhausted even before my birth, having given my father, whom she shared with six other wives, eight children already. In the months before my arrival, she watched with quiet despair as he took a new wife, a girl of just 14. When his child bride gave my father a son three months before my own birth, my mother knew the only way she could retain the merest portion of her husband’s affections was for the baby in her belly to be male. When I arrived into the world, mottled, tiny, and screaming, she didn’t see her infant child. She saw only her own failure as a woman.

As the village women struggled to save her life following my difficult birth, it was understood that I would be placed outside in the sun to die. I was the 19th child in the family. I lay there for hours screaming out my little lungs as the sun burned my newborn skin, until eventually someone took me inside and handed me to my mother. She was overcome with guilt, and as she soothed me, she promised herself no harm would ever come to me again.

My mother, an illiterate burka-clad village woman, became the heroine of my life. As war in Afghanistan raged and my family was torn apart with the death of my father (a member of Parliament) and later several other family members, including my brothers, my mother became the glue that held our extended family together. It is thanks to her determination that I became the first girl child in my family to be allowed to go to school.

Her quiet strength and resilience is replicated in the millions of voiceless women across the mountain villages and desert towns of Afghanistan. The circumstances of my birth might sound shocking to some. But in Afghanistan, this is still not uncommon. This is a land where girl children are seen as less valuable than a goat—a goat will at least give you milk and meat. A girl is another mouth to feed and a dowry to finance.

I remember visiting one village and finding a sick woman due to give birth. She cannot have been older than 25, but she had already given birth to four children. She told me she couldn’t ask her husband to take her to the doctor because to do so, he would need to sell one of his cattle. My heart breaks as I remember her words: "When I die, my husband can find a new wife, but if he sells the cattle, what will my family eat?" I have no doubt that this poor young woman is not alive today.

The discrimination against and poor treatment of women only begins at birth. For many Afghan women, a life of violence, drudgery and ill health is the best they can expect. This month, the story of Shar Gul, 15, shocked the world. Found freezing and starving, the young girl’s nails had been pulled out, the skin on an ear and her nose had been twisted with pliers, and she had been kept without proper food or water in a filthy, dark bathroom for five months by her husband’s family, for refusing to go into prostitution.

Largely as a result of pressure from the girl’s family, two people have been arrested in what Afghan officials called an “un-Islamic act.” What should be truly shocking is that this kind of treatment of young brides is not unusual. And in most cases, it raises little more than a shrug from both officials and civilians. A woman is a chattel, mere property to be exploited as the owner—whether her husband or her father—sees fit. At best an asset, at worst, a liability.

In the eight years I have worked as a member for Parliament in the Afghan government, and before that when I worked as a child-protection officer for UNICEF, I have dealt with countless cases of abuse, violence, and forced marriage. The province I represent is called Badakshan, and it is one of the poorest, most wildly remote and conservative provinces in all of Afghanistan. The province also has the world’s highest rate of maternal and child mortality.

It’s a shameful statistic. Shameful for Afghans, who tolerate the kind of willful ignorance that perpetuates such a situation, and shameful for the international community, which, since the fall of the Taliban government, has pumped billions of dollars into programs that are supposed to rebuild and restore my crumbling nation.

If that was the original objective of the so-called coalition of the willing in 2001, then by what measure can the mission be considered a success? As foreign governments from among the NATO and International Security Assistance Force contingents make plans for troop withdrawal, how is a still largely undeveloped nation that tops world-corruption tables, exports only heroin, and lacks proper infrastructure, security, health care, or education going to be able to successfully integrate into the modern world?

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It is fair to say that huge amounts have been achieved in Afghanistan in the past decade since the fall of the Taliban. But there is still so much to do.

This week it was revealed that the Taliban are seeking to open a political office in the gulf state of Qatar, widely seen as precursor to further "peace talks" aimed at bringing the Taliban back into the mainstream political arena. I am one of several voices within Afghanistan questioning this approach as the best route to peace. A couple of months ago, the Taliban tried to assassinate me. For over an hour a gun battle raged between them and my guards as I cowered inside my car, not knowing if I would live or die. They have tried to kill me on several other previous occasions—for the sole reason that I am a woman who speaks out for human rights. And not just me—others like me who also speak out.

Can anyone really believe the Taliban will share power and be willing to sit in a democratic Parliament alongside a woman? I do not believe it. In the past decade, democracy has flourished in Afghanistan, a democracy that was not imposed on us, as some would say, but one that was built on our traditions of democracy. Even at local village level, Afghans have always voted for their leaders under the jirga (tribal council) system. For centuries, the jirgas have settled disputes and negotiated peace. Democratic traditions are not new to us in Afghanistan, but after 30 long years, which have seen a Russian invasion, brutal civil war, and Taliban rule, we still need international support and help to ensure the democratic and social gains of recent years are not lost.

One day the Taliban will probably succeed in killing me. I am resigned to this fate. But for as long as I am alive, I will not rest in my desire to lead my people out an abyss of corruption and poverty. For this reason, I am running for the Afghan presidency in 2014. I was born a girl who should have died. But if God wills it, I may die having become the first female president of a country I love and a country that will finally see all of its children—both boys and girls—born into peace and security, not violence and war.

I want see Afghanistan take its rightful place in the world. And I truly believe that with the ongoing support of the international community, one day it will. My plea to the USA and other nations is not to abandon us yet.