Written By: Bryony Gordon, The Daily Telegraph · Feb. 25, 2012 | Last Updated: Feb. 25, 2012 5:16 AM ET
The last time the Taliban tried to murder Fawzia Koofi, she was in her car with her two young daughters.
When the first bullet was fired, they were travelling from the eastern province of Jalalabad to the Afghan capital Kabul, along a dangerous and narrow road wedged between the mountains and a river.
“Everyone was quiet so that we could hear what was going on, and then the next round came.”
Ms. Koofi mimics the sound of gunfire perfectly.
“It was then that we saw them, shooting from the other side of the river.”
Ms. Koofi was the first female member of the new Afghanistan parliament elected in 2005. In 2014, she intends to stand in the presidential election.
The Taliban would rather she didn’t. And so they shoot at her, her family and her entourage.
She has watched as two members of her police escort were killed. She’s survived an assassination attempt in her office. Her vehicle has been forced off the road by men wearing the uniforms of the intelligence service, her driver dragged from the car and beaten. Every month she receives letters warning her life is in danger.
On the morning of the most recent attempt, in early 2010, Ms. Koofi was travelling in a convoy of cars that included her sister, her young daughters, her own security and several police vehicles. She didn’t want the police to come with her on the journey, because she felt it would make her an obvious target.
“But the police officials were worried, so they insisted on coming. We were the only traffic on the road as it was very early in the morning.
“My bodyguards immediately started shooting from my car in retaliation. Every time the bodyguards shot, the spent cartridge would come back into the car, and I kept on thinking that these were bullets from the Taliban.
“I have heard that when you are hit by a bullet, you do not get pain immediately. That it comes later, due to shock. So I kept on expecting the pain to arrive, while all the time worrying about my daughters. I didn’t want to look down, in case I saw blood. I tried to hide us under the seats because I didn’t want us to be injured in the head.
“But then I realized that the driver was veering out of control, and I thought, ‘OK, if am going to die now, I do not want it to be because of a traffic accident.’ ”
Ms. Koofi actually laughs at this memory, a brief respite before drawing to her conclusion: “So at this point, I stood up and told the driver to go as fast as he could. I wanted to motivate him. I could see bullets going here and there, and bits of the road from where they hit were being flung up into the glass of the car. Then eventually we got to a tunnel.
“In total it lasted half an hour. For my daughters, a lot longer. They were traumatized, and kept on shouting loudly in their sleep for days after.”
Ms. Koofi is 36, her daughters just 11 and 12.
She admits, “Sometimes they ask me to step down, but I think much of the time they understand the value of my work. They are very brave. They want to change the world. I make these sacrifices for my daughters.”
Given the threat of death that hangs heavily over all their lives, one has to ask why she continues in her quest to become Afghan president, even if the answer – emancipation for women and for the country as a whole – is obvious.
“We all die anyway,” she says simply.
It is interesting that in many ways, she is as fatalistic as the suicide bombers she is on constant watch for. But then Ms. Koofi was supposed to die the day she was born. She is as experienced in death as she is in life.
She was born in Badakhshan, a province in north-eastern Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan and China. It is remote, wild and to this day has the world’s highest rate of child mortality. She was the 19th of her father’s 23 children, born to the second of his seven wives, her battle beginning as soon as she was conceived.
In the village where her parents lived, baby girls were considered worthless, so her mother spent her pregnancy praying for a boy. It could not have helped she was exhausted, having already borne seven children, or sick with worry about being usurped because her husband had just taken his latest wife – a 14-year-old, who had recently given birth to a son.
When Ms. Koofi was delivered after a 30 hour labour, her mother was only semi-conscious and refused to hold her. The baby was wrapped in a cloth and placed on the ground outside in the baking sun, where she was left until the next day. Hearing the newborn’s screams and seeing the sunburn on her face, the family expected her to die. But she didn’t.
When her mother was better, she vowed to do her best by her daughter – though illiterate herself, she made sure she was the first girl in the family to be allowed to go to school.
Ms. Koofi, who has now written a memoir, remembers her father beating her mother. Yet she doesn’t feel any ill will toward him. As she points out, that was the norm in Afghanistan during the 1970s. In many parts of the country, it still is.
If anything, her father was her inspiration. Like Ms. Koofi today, he represented Badakhshan in the Afghan parliament, serving under the monarchy, the communists and the Mujahedeen, who assassinated him when she was just three years old.
In the many bloody battles that have been fought in Afghanistan, several of her brothers have been killed. Her husband was imprisoned by the Taliban for marrying her, a member of a political family perceived by them to be troublesome. He died of tuberculosis soon afterward and his wife says she has been married to politics ever since.
She does not believe President Hamid Karzai should be holding reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
“Oh yes, there was stability under the Taliban, but it was a dead stability. There was no life. Nobody on the streets could breathe.”
There have been massive improvements for women since they were overthrown in 2001. According to an Oxfam report released to mark the 10th anniversary of this momentous occasion, 2.7 million girls are now in school, compared to just a few thousand during Taliban times. In the new Afghan parliament, 27% of MPs are women, far higher than the world average. But Ms. Koofi still sees examples of horrific brutality against women, and she worries about the imminent withdrawal of NATO troops.
“A month ago, I met a girl who had been locked underground by her husband because she refused to go into prostitution. She was just 15, and had never even had a period. Her nails had been pulled out. There was no part of her skin that hadn’t been bruised or marked in some way. They fed her only every other day. In Afghanistan, these things still happen.”
She is not scared. “Life does become heavy for me,” she says. “There is a huge responsibility on my shoulders. But they [the Taliban] could get me anywhere. And I know that if they want to kill me, then it is only because I am a threat to them. That means I am succeeding.”
Does she think she could be the first female president of Afghanistan, beating the U.S. to this milestone? She hopes so.
But mostly, she wants the world to remember the following: “Women have not been involved in the country’s destruction. We do not have blood on our hands. We have been agents of peace, and if anyone tries not to include us in the process of peace, then it will not be easy for them.”
The Favoured Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future by Fawzia Koofi with Naden Ghouri