Fawzia Koofi’s early life story mirrors that of many Afghan women. When Koofi was born, her mother left the infant girl out in the sun to die, disappointed that she hadn’t had a son. The newborn suffered terrible burns to her face before the family repented and took her home.
Despite her ignoble entry into the world, which she describes in her autobiography, Koofi rose to become the first female speaker of the Afghan Parliament and an influential politician. She has survived assassination attempts and yet is among the politicians currently in peace talks with the Taliban.
I spoke to Koofi by phone recently, some nine years after first having tea with her at her Kabul home. I asked her what she thinks about the U.S. troop pullout and beleaguered Afghanistan’s future.
ON THE U.S. DECISION TO UNCONDITIONALLY WITHDRAW TROOPS BY 9/11:
It was supposed to be conditional withdrawal and conditions-based, so the Taliban needed to deliver certain things including a political settlement. President Biden’s announcement … put the Taliban in a position where they will win anyway: militarily or politically. They feel less obliged to (make) a power-sharing arrangement. I think it would have been better if President Biden’s troop withdrawal announcement could (have) happened after a political settlement was reached … Probably the Taliban (would then have had) more generosity and sincerity at the negotiation table. The leverage the U.S. had was the Doha agreement to pressurize the Taliban for a genuine engagement, but they have now announced the unconditional withdrawal so that leverage is not there anymore.
ON NEGOTIATING WITH A GROUP THAT DOESN’T RECOGNIZE WOMEN’S RIGHTS:
I’ve been present at negotiations for six or seven months. Their attitudes towards me personally have been that we are there just for decoration. The perspective is [women] are there to confront them, not there for meaningful participation. We have to go through a constant process of struggling … to the extent that we’re acceptable. That does not mean that the Taliban have that attitude on the ground. I think [it’s only the] Taliban who are in the five-star hotels, under the observation of the foreigners, including the U.N. and the U.S., they try to show willingness and respect. But those that are fighting, we still see that there are girls’ schools being attacked, we still see that women are being unlawfully punished, we see that women are not even allowed to go to school or to work, so we see that these problems exist in areas that are controlled by the Taliban. I was attacked myself last year but along with me, women like judges, journalists, all of these strong professionals [who] are prominent. So the situation on the ground is different to the negotiation room.
ON WHY SHE RISKS HER LIFE TO DO HER WORK:
Afghanistan has been in [an] active war for over four decades. The civilians are the main tool of war, and we have paid the highest price. I really hope that the negotiations do not fail because we are born in war, we grow up in war, we have not only lost parts of our body, we lost so many opportunities. If this country was in peace I’m sure the citizens, including the women, could have made this country much more advanced. The collapse of institutions and government is something I have actually seen in my lifetime, with the Russian withdrawal. I was a school student, but I could see how institutions collapsed and civil war escalated, followed by the Taliban. I hope we will not witness that. My struggle is actually for my daughters (ages 21 and 22) and their generation because they need to live in a peaceful country. I have been in Afghanistan all my life, I am going to stay here until it becomes impossible.
ON GENERATION Z, SOCIAL MEDIA AND AFGHANISTAN’S BRAIN DRAIN:
I think the institutions are now strong, but at the same time, I think there will be intensive war and escalating violence. A lot of people are actually leaving Afghanistan — brain drain. When I go in the streets, I can see families trying to send their house supplies (overseas) to leave Afghanistan. These are professionals, experts [in] whom Afghanistan has invested a lot. Everyone has the worry that probably we will go back to scratch, but I think we will not because society has become more mobilized towards common principles of democracy. They use mobile phones and social media to let the world know about the problems, so if there is any sign of oppression now it goes viral on social media and people react, and they are not really just a witness but they feel they have a responsibility. Talking with these young people, they actually do not trust this peace process.
ON THE FUTURE FOR WOMEN AND GIRLS:
The Taliban see progress for women as a product of the West. But actually, it’s from the strength and resilience of women. At the end of the day, Americans and the international community leave … women of Afghanistan behind. A lot of women actually feel betrayal because they think they were not consulted. Americans were not in Afghanistan because they wanted to protect women … but they were here and women allied with them. They should continue to financially support women’s education, employment and institutions that help women. I visited the girls’ school that was attacked. I was inspired by their strength … even in the hospital they were reading books and they said they’d go back to school. There is a girl from one of the remote provinces who told me that she now walks to school. On the way, there are days that there are rocket attacks and insecurity but if there is a peace (deal) that will stop her from going to school, she prefers to experience this than stay home.