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A 'Favored Daughter' Fights For Afghan Women

On the day she was born, Fawzia Koofi nearly died after being left outside in the unrelenting Afghan sun. But against all odds, Koofi survived and went on to become Afghanistan's first female deputy speaker of Parliament. Today, Koofi's name is floated in discussions about whether Afghanistan is ready for a first female president.

In her new memoir, The Favored Daughter, Koofi describes the hardship of being a woman in Afghanistan. She says it isn't hard to understand why her mother was distraught to learn that she'd given birth to another girl: Her husband, who was a member of Parliament himself, had recently married a much younger woman, and Koofi's mother hoped to regain his love by giving birth to a son.

"To give birth to a girl in Afghanistan — especially when you don't have a son — having more girls means your life is not complete," Koofi tells NPR's Renee Montagne. Koofi's mother later explained why she almost let her daughter die: "She said, 'I didn't want to have another girl to suffer as much as I suffered.' ... I think that her love gave me the strength to move forward, that her love replaced the first day of ignorance."

During Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s, the streets were war zones, but Koofi's mother made sure that her daughter went to school. "My mother was afraid like many mothers in that situation would've been," Koofi says. "She would come out of the apartment when I'd come back from school late ... and tell me, 'If the class or school makes you president, I don't want you to be president. I want you to be alive.' "

Going to school at that time was a struggle, but education was at least still a possibility. Once the Taliban took power, women were prevented from attending school entirely. "I could've been a medical doctor now," Koofi says, imagining what her life would have been without the Taliban. "I could see in front of my eyes, that Afghanistan's talent and capacity — 55 percent of the society which is women are deprived of all this progress. And that was a disaster for the country's future."

We cannot have double standards around the world. We cannot say women in the United States deserve to go to school, but women in Afghanistan — it's their problem if Taliban doesn't allow them.

Prevented from continuing her education, Koofi had few options beyond getting married. But even after her wedding, the Taliban continued to intrude into her life. They arrested her husband only 10 days after they were married; the celebratory henna tattoos on the newlyweds' hands hadn't even faded yet.

"The only crime my husband committed was that he married me, and I come from a political family," says Koofi. She remembers provoking an outburst from a member of the Taliban while attempting to visit her imprisoned husband. She had forgotten to remove her nail polish, and when she got to the jail, "this Taliban guy picked up a stone and wanted to beat me. ... I started crying ... I forgot who I was for one moment."

The Taliban were driven from power in 2001. But today, many argue that negotiating with the group and incorporating them into the government is crucial for ensuring the success of Afghanistan's fledgling democracy.

"We need to talk," Koofi agrees, "because we are living in the 21st century and dialogue and engagement politically is a solution." But she's wary of giving the Taliban too much credibility, and doesn't believe that they'll ever be able to share power. She predicts the Taliban would demand their own conditions and strip women of basic human rights yet again — which the world would perceive as "an Afghan problem."

"We cannot have double standards around the world," Koofi says. "We cannot say women in the United States deserve to go to school, but women in Afghanistan — it's their problem if Taliban doesn't allow them."

And, Koofi points out, not everyone agrees that the Taliban is a political group or should be treated as such. Many consider it to be a terrorist organization, and she argues that granting it a legitimate political identity may be dangerous. "I hope we will not repeat the same mistakes of 1989 when the Soviets met with the Mujahedeen group," Koofi says. "They gave them a lot of privileges, and at the end, the Mujahedeen got to power."

As a female politician who regularly criticizes the Taliban, Koofi knows that she faces real danger on a daily basis. "One day when I wanted to go to my constituents, I received this news that my helicopter might be attacked by Taliban," she recalls. Keeping this reality in mind, Koofi begins each chapter of her memoir with a letter to her own daughters.

"In case I don't come back, these are the values that they should follow," Koofi explains. She urges her daughters to "stand on their values, and if that takes their life, it's worth it because at the end of the day you paved the way for others to come forward."

Koofi says that she plans to run for the presidency in two years. She believes that if she doesn't, the same corrupt, visionless politicians who've run the country for decades will stay in power. "We need to come forward [and] at least raise our voices," she says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.