What’s a mere death threat? Several assassination attempts haven’t deterred Fawzia Koofi. The 36-year-old widow and mother of two is Afghanistan’s first female Speaker of Parliament and the highest-ranging woman in Afghan politics. That makes her a target for opponents of women’s rights in Afghanistan, including the fearsome Taliban. But Koofi refuses to be cowed. She even plans to run for President in two years.
President Karzai has endorsed a new “code of conduct”, which encourages gender segregation and allows husbands to beat their wives under certain circumstances. What’s your reaction?
It’s a move that’s politically motivated. Women in Afghanistan are once again being victimized by politics, and in rural Afghanistan it can lead to gender segregation and violence against women. But the “code of conduct” goes against the Constitution of Afghanistan, which guarantees the right of women. In Parliament, men and women sit under the same roof, and a political move won’t change that. Besides, I don’t think the people of Afghanistan want this! They know the real values of Islam.
Just the other day an Afghan soldier killed six British soldiers, and shortly before that four French soldiers. Is the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating?
Yes, both with regards to security and political stability. There’s so little political stability that the government can’t carry out its work. It can’t create jobs; it can’t make society function. The Taliban have so much influence because there’s no proper screening of new soldiers and police officers. Somebody can simply recruit his cousin, and that cousin may well be affiliated with the Taliban.
How does the violence affect your life?
For me, and for other women, there’s a lot of uncertainty now, especially since the withdrawal of international forces is getting closer. It’s almost as if we’re going back to where we began.
70% of Afghan women think their situation will get worse when the international forces leave, starting next year. Do you share this fear?
Yes. If the forces leave quickly, without properly finishing the war, the situation will deteriorate. By the way, many men share this fear. The silent majority of Afghans worry about what life will be like when the international forces leave. Of course, they can’t be here forever, but they have to finish the war. If they leave too soon it will be bad for Afghanistan and bad for the world. How can the international community even consider pulling out without properly finishing the war?
…but several days ago, a US soldier killed 16 Afghans. Do you still want international forces to stay?
It was a brutal attack and a horrible action. Unfortunately it will embolden extremists and militants, and it makes the position of the United States’ Afghan partners very difficult. The US needs to prevent actions like this one. We can’t let the actions of one crazy soldier undermine the entire strategy in Afghanistan.
How do you try to prevent assassination attempts?
When I leave my house I take a different route every day. I’ve also stopped going to meetings in the evenings, and I’ve increased the number of bodyguards who protect me. But of course assassins can disguise themselves as bodyguards. I don’t feel safe on my house. And the threats are getting worse for other women activists as well.
Is the price of being involved in politics too high?
Sometimes I feel it is. When I see other people going about their jobs, I think, “I’d like to do that, too”. But I also feel I’m making a small contribution to my people. Besides, now I can’t go back to being just a normal citizen. I’d disappoint my supporters if I did, and my opponents would feel even stronger.
Do your daughters accept your job and the dangers that come with it?
Sometimes they say I should leave politics, but mostly they’re proud. In fact, my younger daughter has a talent for politics and travels with me to the provinces. My older daughter is mostly interested in science.
You’ll run for President in the next elections. Do you have a chance of winning?
Yes. I don’t have the resources and networks that Afghanistan’s male leaders do, but people support me. In the last parliamentary election I got more votes than anyone else.
If you win, what’s your top priority?
Changing Afghanistan’s image as a poor country that produces terrorism. We have many natural resources and should be known as an exporter of goods, not violence. And I’d want to create jobs and enforce the rule of law. That’s the basic job of any country’s leader, but it’s not being done here! Afghanistan needs a stronger government.
Who’s your role model?
My father. He never gave up hope, and in the end he gave his life for the people of Afghanistan. Many people still refer to me as his daughter, and that makes me proud. When I first ran for Parliament, many people voted for me because they remembered my father. But in the election after that they voted for me, and I still won.
Are you ever afraid?
You women in other countries have so many choices. We just have a choice between struggle and resignation. If I’m killed for my values, my life will have been worth it. And there will be others who continue my work.
Who’s your inspiration?
Margaret Thatcher. Say what you will about her policies, but she was a strong woman.