Fawzia Koofi, Former Deputy Speaker of the Lower House of the Parliament of Afghanistan
In exile, she remains active for democracy and girls’ education in a country under the repression of the Taliban
The first woman to hold one of the highest political positions in Afghanistan, the vice-president of the Lower House of the National Assembly, was born into a polygamous and conservative family. With the return of the Taliban to power, Fawzia Koofi -who will be one of the speakers at the Santander WomenNOW international summit, organized by Vocento and which will once again make Madrid the European capital of women on June 16 and 17- recalls from exile that her fight against discrimination against women began when she was a child and became the first in her family to go to school. “My father was a member of the Afghan Parliament and represented a conservative view of society,” she maintains. «I was never the favorite daughter, because my mother wanted to have a son. So I have faced difficulties from the moment I was born, which has fueled my political views and my fight against discrimination.”
Born in 1975 and a medical student, she left her vocation to turn to politics when “I could see how the Taliban tortured and oppressed women in front of my eyes. That forged my conscience and I began to promote women’s rights. She herself suffered two serious attacks. In one of them they hit her on the shoulder and affected her right hand, with which she wrote.
-You have suffered two serious attacks, in Tora Bora in 2010 and in Kabul ten years later. How do you overcome this type of violence?
-When you have a strong belief that society needs to change, especially in a country like Afghanistan where women have always been silenced, you know that your voice can make a difference and change the lives of others. The attacks gave me more reasons to fight. And I took on the security challenges at personal cost. Extremist military groups, including the Taliban, are not afraid of US bombing, but they are afraid of women’s power. Because female participation in social and political life will undermine the conservative views of the Taliban.
-How do you continue your struggle from exile?
-I am not physically in the country, but technology keeps us connected. So in a way I am there every moment, talking to people and doing humanitarian work. I maintain my office and schools in Kabul and the provinces. It is very hard to see how the future that we had conquered with our blood, that of millions of Afghans, has been lost. Sometimes I have to gather my strength because it becomes unbearable to know how much women and all civilians suffer. The Taliban have started killing people and I can’t do anything to change this painful situation.
-Are we in Europe capable of understanding the situation in Afghanistan?
-It would be unfair to say that the Europeans do not understand or do not help the Afghans. For example, the Spanish government has really saved many people who were at risk and evacuated a large number of activists, for which I am grateful. But in general, some countries do not want to understand the detailed situation in Afghanistan, which can undermine global security, as is the case with Ukraine. My hope is that the other nations confront the Taliban with more force and that Europe unites to defend the human rights of the Afghans, who are in a horrible moment. But that does not happen and the atrocities continue to be allowed.
-What are those details that escape us?
-The situation is changing very quickly and, after Ukraine, the world has turned its attention elsewhere, as happened in 2003 with Iraq. As then, now the Taliban have grown stronger and are preparing to arrive in Europe. At this moment I know that in Afghanistan there are many extremist militias that plan to use the fragility of the borders, created by the conflict in Ukraine, to reach European territory.
a democratic future
There are two scenarios that could be feasible for Afghanistan, according to Fawzia Koofi. The “negative”, in which “the Taliban will continue to prevail with their atrocities and murders, as they do now”, and which will produce “another civil war” that will only cause the cycle of violence to start again. The second possibility that Koofi envisions is “positive”, the product of “collective work in a political agreement with civil society”, facilitated by the financing and support of the international community. The result would be a “legitimate government” that would include women and respect civil rights.
-How do you feel these days that the Taliban ordered all women to wear the burqa?
-They use the Islamic interpretation as a weapon of power. They do it from the beginning. In Afghanistan, the Islamic hijab has always been respected, but now the Taliban makes it compulsory to wear a burqa, which covers the face. If the woman disobeys, the male of the family is punished. So they are prevented from leaving their homes, which basically means that they are erased from public life. The world should not be silent in the face of these worrying facts.
-What do you remember about the peace negotiations with the Taliban, in which you participated?
-I remember everything. The Taliban have not kept their promises. They said that women could go to school and university, work, do business, hold public office… But they were lying. They were not serious or honest. They just wanted the world to believe them during the negotiation.
-You have two daughters. What future do you want for them?
-I hoped to be able to build that future so that my daughters and other girls would not have to return to the past that I have lived, to a world where they are invisible. I really wanted to avoid it, but that’s the current situation, again. So I believe that the future will continue to be the fight for an equal society based on justice and education for all. It will continue to be supporting the people to restore democracy and that those of us who are now in different countries can return.