Fawzia Koofi has survived ambushes and assassination attempt. Yet still she wants to become the first female president of Afghanistan
The Times Magazine
By Jerome Starkey in Kabul
There is a large, imposing picture of Fawzia Koofi hanging on her sitting room wall. Dressed in a leopard-print headscarf, she stands next to Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. Barely an inch apart, their hands clasped demurely in front of them, they stare straight out of the frame with a formality more reminiscent of Pilgrim Fathers than modern-day politicians.
“That was when we were friends,” says Koofi. “We’re not friends any more.”
Koofi is the 19th of her father’s 23 children. Her mother was the second of her father’s seven wives and they lived in one of the most remote backwaters of Afghanistan, where Koofi’s father used to beat her mother if the rice wasn’t cooked correctly. Koofi would grow up to be the first woman in her family to learn to read and become among the first women to be elected to Afghanistan’s parliament in 2005, where she was also appointed deputy speaker. Last year she helped pass a law that criminalised rape in Afghanistan’s penal code for the first time. In many ways she is the embodiment of women’s emancipation, and now, she wants to be president.
“I’m not running just for the sake of running,” Koofi says. “This country needs a change.”
Now 36, she is the heir of a pseudo-aristocratic political dynasty which, in just two generations, has served under the Shahs, the communists, the Mujahidin and now Karzai. Two of her brothers were police commanders. She had to cajole them to let her go to school, to permit her to stand for parliament, and it took her four years and $20,000 to persuade them to agree to her marriage to the man of her choice. One is retired and the other now lives in Denmark, but she is still dependent on their support to maintain her political power base.
“She’s a feminist, she would call herself that,” says a European friend. “But at the same time she is a conservative village girl from the wilds of one of the most conservative parts of the country.”
She bursts into her sitting room 20 minutes late for her interview, all smiles and apologies. “Traditional politics,” she says by way of explanation. “It’s exhausting. Mornings at home are always busy.” She usually wakes at 5am and works on her computer for a few hours, before the petitioners from her native Badakhshan province start knocking on her door. Around 11am she goes to parliament.
She is wearing a chunky grey cardigan and a plain blue headscarf, which slips to reveal dark, damp hair, because she has squeezed in a shower between the petitioners and our meeting. She is effortlessly pretty, without make-up, but many of her own countrymen would think her wet hair indecent. There is a fine balance to be struck in this oppressively patriarchal country.
Afghanistan’s leaders are, she says, “entirely selfish”, treating their country like a fiefdom, but she concedes that “clever politicians need to work within the framework” to effect lasting change. She admires outspoken women – one of her colleagues was thrown out of parliament for calling the warlords donkeys – but she does not want to join her in the political wilderness.
Koofi might have her sights on the presidency one day, but the 6ft square picture of President Karzai still hangs above the television at one end of the L-shaped room, like a feudal foghorn reminding her guests of their proximity to power. She is clearly playing the game.
Her two-storey house is on a main road opposite two barber’s shops and a small tailor, in a fairly affluent neighbourhood close to the parliament building. There are snowcapped mountains visible in the distance and a sea container on the pavement outside her gate, which houses a couple of armed policemen who protect her. This is normal in Afghanistan. In fact, compared with the private armies, bulletproof convoys and 30ft blast walls that some politicians seem to adopt for prestige as much as protection, Koofi’s security is modest. She has survived assassination attempts, including one ambush outside Kabul that killed two of her police escorts while she hid in the car with one of her daughters.
On a separate occasion, men wearing the uniforms of Afghanistan’s intelligence service forced her car off the road, dragged her driver into the dirt and started beating him, while she frantically dialled the Ministry of the Interior and screamed that she was being kidnapped. When she demanded to know who her attackers were, they just laughed before eventually letting her go.
“She is living under the constant strain and fear of death,” says Nadene Ghouri, a British journalist who collaborated with Koofi on her forthcoming autobiography, The Favored Daughter, and who was with her in the car at the time. “It’s not only the Taleban. There are elements within the Government that would like to see her shut up.”
Koofi’s sitting room is filled with throne-like sofas, all decorated in spray-painted gold. Matching coffee tables are adorned with lace-covered tissue boxes. It is a typical reception room for a dignitary in Kabul, designed to seat large numbers of guests for semi-formal audiences. There are no obvious feminine touches, which might be because Koofi likes to think of herself as “a politician first and a woman second”.
Her 18-year-old nephew, Najibullah, carries in a small electric bar-heater and plugs it in to relieve the winter chill. He is also from Badakhshan, from a small village in a remote district ten days’ walk from the provincial capital.
An ornamental horsewhip hangs on the wall, denoting Afghanistan’s national sport, buzkashi, in which horsemen wrestle at full gallop for the carcass of a headless goat, and a small pair of horns, from a rare Marco Polo sheep, sits on top of the television. “They were a gift,” Koofi explains. “I’m not sure how they got hold of them.”
The only other picture is at the far end of the room, on top of a large glass display cabinet which houses eight separate tea services, complete with pots, cups and matching saucers, edged, of course, in varying amounts of gold. The black-and-white photograph shows a handsome young man in a dark suit and tie. He has a neatly trimmed beard and his top lip is shaved in a traditional sign of Islamic devotion. He wears a lambskin hat, like President Karzai, and he too stares resolutely out of the frame.
It is Wakil Abdul Rahman, Koofi’s father, who was elected to Afghanistan’s parliament in 1965, under King Zahir Shah. He stayed on after a bloodless coup in 1973 installed the king’s cousin, Daoud Khan, and again after Daoud and most of his family were killed in 1978 and Hafizullah Amin seized power.
Koofi’s father was killed later that year trying to negotiate with members of a burgeoning Islamic insurgency in the hills of his native Badakhshan. According to Koofi family lore, Rahman was riding into the mountains unarmed, on a magnificent white steed, to negotiate a peace deal when they ambushed him. Three men blocked his path and one of them shouted, “So it is you, Wakil Abdul Rahman. I have waited a long time for this chance to kill you.” He wounded Rahman’s horse, more shots rang out from the mountain, and the government entourage fled. Rahman was captured and executed two days later, and the insurgents refused to return his body. It was only when Koofi’s aunt, her father’s sister, rallied a group of relatives to walk up into the wilderness that he was finally brought home.
Koofi was 3 when her father was killed. In all that time she remembers him speaking to her only once – and that was to tell her to go away. He is the man who beat Koofi’s mother so badly that she contemplated leaving him, but ultimately she decided to endure the violence because she couldn’t face the prospect of leaving her children behind.
“I am a mix of all of my mother’s strengths,” Koofi says. “With all of the problems she suffered, you would never see the smile leave her face.”
Their family home in Koof district, from which they get their name, was the only building with a lavatory. It was a simple long drop yet her father referred to his private rooms as “the Paris suite”, without any apparent irony, because a man from Kabul had decorated them with murals.
It is his legacy, and specifically his “empire of allies, networks and connections” that has proved so important for mobilising voters to keep Koofi in parliament. She was re-elected in 2010 and her sister, Qandigul, was also elected – further entrenching the family dynasty.
Koofi says her father used all but one of his seven marriages to cement political alliances with rival clans in neighbouring districts. Only his sixth wife was apolitical – and she was chosen for her carpet-weaving skills. Thus Rahman’s portrait on her sitting room wall reminds guests that their hostess is, in her own words, “high-born”.
In fact, Koofi was born in a field, in the mountains, where her mother had led their family’s livestock to graze on summer pastures. Her mother had lost her husband’s affections to a newer wife and, when she produced a daughter instead of a coveted son, she left the baby in the sun all day, expecting she would die.
This is just one of the anecdotes of everyday brutality recounted in Koofi’s autobiography. In the book, the conflict between the conservative village girl and reformist politician is even more apparent.
The fact that she is pictured barefaced on the cover of a book to be published around the world puts her at the vanguard of female emancipation and achievement in Afghanistan. Yet the story of her life – which spans Afghanistan’s descent into chaos over the past 30 years and includes personal tragedy at almost every turn – reads as if it has been censored by the invisible hand of Afghan custom.
There is no explanation of how her family, and particularly her brothers, who were police commanders, made their money. She writes adoringly of the father she barely knew, and explains that his violence was “normal” and suggests her mother interpreted it as a sign of love.
She describes one night when insurgents broke into their home and beat her sister-in-law until dawn. The implication is that to say anything more specific about the ordeal would further dishonour the family.
Nor is there any explanation as to why an unidentified assassin would creep into their house, on a night when an older brother had dismissed all the security guards, go straight to her brother Muqim’s room and empty 30 bullets from a Kalashnikov magazine into his sleeping body.
“It was a political killing,” she says, unconvincingly, when we meet. All that emerges subsequently is that Muqim was in love and writing hopeless love letters to a university girl, but Koofi says all the letters were returned unopened, because that was the only proper thing for the girl to do.
Soon after her father was killed, she recounts how one of his seven wives remarried a shepherd who had recently returned from Iran. In the book she describes how this man refused to feed and clothe his new wife’s children.
“When my mother visited a few weeks later, she found Ennayat, Nazi and Hedayat crying outside in the yard. They were not allowed into the warmth of the house and were hungry and dirty,” Koofi writes. Her mother, Bibi jan, immediately rescued the three eldest, “but the young woman refused to give up her baby, Safiullah, and my mother left without him. A few days later he became feverish and was left to die without food or comfort. We heard that he cried alone for hours, his little face covered with flies, while this man would not allow his mother even to pick him up. He died a lonely, horrible death.”
Amazingly, Koofi spares this man her scorn. Domestic violence, child abuse and in this instance, murder, are recorded but rarely condemned. “Of course I don’t condone my father for beating my mother,” she writes. “But in those days it was the norm.” He may have torn chunks out of her mother’s hair and bloodied her face with a ladle, but later in the book she describes him as a “man of peace”.
“I was a child,” she says when we meet, as if to explain this uncomfortable acceptance of his violence. “He was a tough man. He was tough with his wives. If I saw the same things now, I don’t know how I would react.”
There is more concern when she recounts how her 17-year-old older brother married a 12-year-old girl and began a “full sexual relationship immediately”.
“My sister-in-law was still such a child that my mother had to help bathe her and dress her in the mornings,” she writes, imagining her own young daughters, Shuhra, 12, and Shaharzad, 13, enduring a similar ordeal. “I wonder what my mother felt on seeing the injuries inflicted on this poor girl by her own son? Did she recoil in horror at the injustice of it all?”
But it is only later, when faced with the full depravities of a civil war – virgin daughters raped and shot in front of their mothers and women’s breasts hacked off – that she writes, “In a country where morality is everything, it was hard to believe we had descended into such evils.”
In this country of hers, “where morality is everything”, only the anonymity of war affords her the space to speak honestly, which is something she either cannot or will not do when it comes to her own family. Perhaps that is because she knows that both her life, and her political career, rest on the perception of her honour, and her honour is the same as that of her family.
Nonetheless, her political enemies circulate unfounded rumours of sexual impropriety to try to impugn her. Her husband, Hamid, succumbed to tuberculosis in 2003. Koofi first set eyes on him when her mother was dying in hospital, but her brothers disapproved of the match because they wanted her to marry someone more important. It was only four years later – in a brief pause during a retreat from Kabul, as the Taleban advanced – that they finally accepted his proposal on Koofi’s behalf, along with a $20,000 dowry.
Koofi has never remarried. But rumours have circulated that she has a boyfriend in Kabul and a rich backer in Dubai. There is no evidence, but in Afghanistan, sometimes hearsay is enough.
“She lives a nun-like existence,” says Ghouri, who has stayed in her house. “She is a bit like Elizabeth I in the sense that she always has to be beyond blame.”
She is still bombarded with marriage proposals from fellow power brokers. She says most are seeking a dynastic union, and she makes enemies of old allies every time she turns men away. She says she is unlikely to remarry because she doesn’t think she will ever find someone like her husband, who was so supportive of her work.
It would be truly revolutionary if a woman were elected president in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is no stranger to revolutions. But for all her extraordinary achievements, Koofi is not a revolutionary. She is a conservative reformist who has transformed her own family, and if fate had conspired differently, if her father had survived and she had never gone to school, she would probably be a 36-year-old grandmother, with eight children of her own, in a house without a lavatory, in a village without a road, ten days’ walk from the provincial capital, and her husband would beat her and refuse to sell his only goat to pay for life-saving medical treatment.
She still meets families in her province where women are valued less than livestock, and where babies are kept warm with fresh animal dung. It’s in communities like that where she is making the greatest change, even if those changes might be as simple as explaining basic hygiene and the benefits of modern medicine.
Yet she is just as comfortable shaking hands with world leaders. There are pictures – reprinted in her book, but not hanging on her wall – with George and Laura Bush; Tony Blair; Condoleezza Rice. In October, when she addressed the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, she urged David Cameron not to sacrifice women’s rights in the rush to cut a deal with the Taleban.
Perhaps one reason for her acclaim, internationally at least, is that Koofi embodies much of what the West hoped to achieve when it ousted the Taleban ten years ago.
“Change will come, and it will come through women like Fawzia, from within families and it will take generations,” Ghouri says. “There may be many Fawzias in the future, but at the moment she is the only one and she is blazing the trail.”
When it is time to be photographed she changes into a full-length, unfashionable, embroidered black smock. She pins on a purple ribbon, to mark International Day For The Elimination Of Violence Against Women and picks a matching lilac headscarf. This is the public face of Fawzia Koofi, modestly dressed, in accordance with Islamic custom, and like Karzai and her father, she stares straight into the camera. But there are two sides to Koofi, and it doesn’t take long before she breaks into a smile.
The Favored Daughter, published on February 16 by Palgrave Macmillan, is available from the Times Bookshop for £15.29 (RRP £16.99), free p&p, on 0845 2712134; thetimes.co.uk/bookshop