An Afghan proverb says: “blood cannot wash out blood”. You need clean water to do that. Fawzia Koofi is a resilient, powerful woman and politician who is struggling to pour a lot of water in order to clean up all the blood that has been shed in her country for decades.
A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, an accomplished author, and an internationally known advocate for the rights of women, children, minorities, and democracy, she is the first female in the Afghan parliament to be elected as Second Deputy Speaker. In 2021, she was one of a few women chosen to negotiate with the Taliban, surviving multiple assassination attempts.
In this interview, Fawzia speaks about the impact of the Taliban takeover, with a focus on women’s rights and the international community’s role in this crisis.
The interview was published in November 2022, in the bilingual yearbook Community Index Magazine no. 4. The publication can be accessed here: https://communityindex.ro/flip-book-2022/
1. You are a brave woman who is demonstrating the Taliban that “the power of words is stronger than the power of bullets.” How are you helping Afghan women obtain a seat at the table?
The situation of the women in Afghanistan has gotten incredibly worse after the Taliban took over in August 2021. They have literally stopped women from going to school, to work, or from any kind of public life. Life has become miserable. Afghanistan is one of those countries in the world where, in the name of religion, women are deprived of everything.
My main focus is trying to support women in obtaining proper education, such as computer literacy or English classes, while trying to help women at risk leave Afghanistan. Also, I continue to speak on behalf of the women in Afghanistan at various events all around the world. I am traveling, meeting policy makers, mobilizing women who are outside Afghanistan raise their voices in the name of those who are trapped inside the country.
2. Afghanistan is, unfortunately, back under Taliban rule, and, as you mentioned, they are “literally making women invisible again.” Gender equality is one of the 17 SDGs and Afghanistan is anything but responsive to women’s needs. As you come from a family of 23 children, how did your childhood teach you to fight for equality and to earn your power?
A politician’s character is shaped by his/her personal experience, or at least this is true in my case. The reason I have started promoting gender equality and combating violence against women is because I have experienced it firsthand – it all started in my family, as my mother and sister are such victims. Growing up, I could see that, in my community – in the office, in the cities, everywhere – there was a gender discrimination, especially under the Taliban. This situation represented my main motivation to become a politician and fight for freedom in the name of women.
It is not an easy fight. It is a very lonely fight for each of us all over the world.
Women across the globe are suffering and fighting inequality in one way or another, but I believe that in my country the situation is much more severe. This is why it requires a lot of energy. It is heartbreaking to see that, after all these years, we are going back in time.
3. It seems that the first 5 SDGs are all beyond the reach of most Afghan women. Do you think sustainability has become a myth in your country?
It all depends on how you define sustainability. From my perspective, the past 20 years helped a lot in transforming the country’s security and economy of the country into more sustainable ones. So many rights have become constitutional. A major issue I see is Afghanistan’s geographical location: an area that is, somehow, a battleground for the world’s super powers. Due to this, usually the country’s people are ignored. Therefore, I think that all sustainability benchmarks have multi-dimensional factors. One thing is clear, though: the citizens are the victims of the global politics.
4. Afghanistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change. However, the Taliban are portraying themselves as good environmental stewards, saying that they want international cooperation. Do you think their intentions are really genuine?
During the past years, due to the war, Afghanistan has experienced the most severe climate change due to the use of chemical weapons. These “modern” bombs had a terrible impact on the climate. This is why, today, draught is the main underlying factor for poverty. To expect the Taliban to keep their commitments probably sounds a bit optimistic. During our negotiations, they have tried to demonstrate that they have changed, but they didn’t keep those promises. This is the reason I incline to think that, probably, concepts like “climate change” or “global warming” are not some in which the Taliban might believe.
5. Your book, “The Favored Daughter”, begins with this shocking statement: “even the day I was born, I was supposed to die.” It seems that death has always been your faithful companion: your father was murdered by extremist mujahedeen, your husband passed away during imprisonment, and you survived multiple assassination attempts. How did you learn to befriend death? How do you find inner peace?
I don’t think I have ever had inner peace. Because of the circumstances I lived in, the challenges I had to overcome as a woman, the cost of war that we all had to pay. In times of war, inner peace is lost. However, not having it made me struggle more for finding it. It offered me a life motivation and, eventually, the power to survive.
6. In a TED talk you said: “we fight, we survive, we live”. What pillars sustain you? Which is your key message to women who are facing adverse situations?
Our fights as women – from East to West, from Asia to Europe or Africa – are the same. The extent is different, but the fight is similar. The gender equality fight is such a lonely one. Sometimes, not even your own family members support you. Probably because they might think that you are too progressive, that you are standing against the family norms, or against the boundaries placed in front of you by the society. This can make you feel so lonely. This is the reason why all women who are passing through dark moments (be it discrimination in the office, domestic violence at home, or not fulfilling their dreams) must remember one thing: you are not alone in this world. There are millions of other women who are in the same situation, but the only way you can move forward and survive is to stand against these odds. If we surrender in the face of challenges and injustice, who will stand for equality?
We have to speak up. We have be united because there is such a strong, invisible power in unity. Be decisive! Building a hospital is a simple, clear process, for example. However, changing a society’s perspective is not that easy. I believe in the power of the community – there is so much power in solidarity. In a community, you talk, you share problems, and you speak up. You might not see an immediate impact, but you have cultivated a seed and you will eventually see the result. Silence means approving what you witness (and this, sometimes, might be against your own beliefs).
7. You enjoy wearing simple headscarves and you vehemently resisted the Taliban’s imposition of the burqa on Afghan women. How do you manage to blend tradition with independence in such an elegant and bold way?
The scarf is my identity. This is why I have always enjoyed wearing it: we all have our roots that we belong to. These roots give us power, originality, and authenticity. However, a scarf should symbolize the right aspect of tradition, and not stop you from your progress. The idea of imposing women to wear a burqa in order to stop their educational or professional progress and from being who they really are is a huge problem. Women must have ownership: they should be the ones deciding their own outfit.
When the Taliban took over the first time, as sign of protest, I didn’t even purchase a burqa because I would never wear it. The Taliban’s message to women is ”you are nobody, you are invisible, you are just a number in a crowd”. Taking the freedom of choice from someone is unacceptable, so I will always speak up against it.