Middle East

Fawzia Koofi survived two assassination plots to lead an 'unstoppable generation' of Afghan women

Afghan women's rights campaigner Fawzia Koofi Source: Twitter

Afghan women were once prohibited from working, studying, or even leaving the house on their own under the Taliban.

Still brandishing the wounds from a recent assassination attempt, Fawzia Koofi went to make peace with the people who once tried to kill her.

With her arm in a sling where a bullet had been removed just weeks ago, the politician and women’s rights activist recently met members of the Taliban for the first direct talks between the militant group and the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar.

Ms Koofi is one of four women representing the government in the historic talks aimed at ending decades of bloodshed in war-torn Afghanistan. The talks began on 12 September.

“It's always not easy to talk with somebody who has so many political differences with you to the extent that they try to kill you,” Ms Koofi told SBS News from Doha.

“It has never been easy for me because the moment I sit with the Taliban, all the memories that I have lived in Afghanistan crosses my mind.”

Those memories would be impossible to forget. Ms Koofi dreamed of becoming a doctor when the Taliban came to power in 1996 and decreed all girls would be banned from studying.

Fawzia Koofi (left) and her fellow peace negotiators. Ms Koofi is among four women from the government in the peace talks with the Taliban,
Fawzia Koofi (left) and her fellow peace negotiators. Ms Koofi is among four women from the government in the peace talks with the Taliban.

The Taliban arrested her husband days after their wedding and he died years later from tuberculosis contracted during his time in prison.

The militant group then tried to kill her in a failed drive-by shooting when she was a member of parliament in 2010. Her daughter, then 10 years old, was also in the car.

Ms Koofi, 45, was the target of another assassination attempt just weeks ago.

She was on 14 August attacked in the backseat of her moving car by unknown gunmen, leaving her hospitalised and having a bullet removed from her right arm.

The Taliban have denied involvement in the August attack. Whoever was responsible, Ms Koofi said there was no doubt about the motive. 

“This was definitely linked to the peace process and my efforts in this, because there were probably people who did not want the process to take off,” she said.

As she confronts the Taliban at the US-brokered peace talks, she wants her injury to symbolise the strength of Afghan women in the face of decades of oppression and adversity.

“The women of Afghanistan have suffered, but they’re so resilient that they will not be stopped,” she said.

“They’re an unstoppable generation of Afghanistan.”


Peace talks

Last week, members of the Afghan government came face to face for the first direct talks with the Taliban since the US reached a peace agreement in February with the militant group.

That agreement hinges on the US withdrawing all remaining troops - about 8000 - from the country if the Taliban agrees to keep Al Qaeda and other extremist groups from launching attacks on US assets.

But there are no guarantees for the rights of women in the agreement.

More concerningly, just days after the talks began, the US embassy in Kabul warned Afghan women in government and other public positions they were at increased risk of being attacked.

'I am not afraid to die.'

One of the women warned about being attacked was Zarifa Ghafari, the mayor of the Afghan town of Maidan Shar.

At just 28 years old, she survived her first assassination attempt in March, when gunmen opened fire on her car.

Zarifa Ghafari is one of Afghanistan's youngest mayors.
Zarifa Ghafari is one of Afghanistan's youngest mayors.

Ms Ghafari expects to die in office. What concerns her is her legacy.

“I’m not afraid of death because I’m sure one day it will come - maybe today or tomorrow,” she told SBS News from her office in Maidan Shar.

“I really want to die after doing... great things for my country. I really want them to remember me [well].”

She’s in no doubt the Taliban were behind it.

“They are still threatening me.”

Small but crucial improvements for women's rights

When the Taliban were last in power, women and girls were banned from studying, going to work or even leaving the house without a male companion.

Strict dress codes were imposed - the burqa becoming a symbol of the Taliban era. Make-up and nail polish were prohibited.

Afghan women in the Taliban era
Afghan women in the Taliban era, at a Red Cross distribution center in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1996.

Things changed dramatically after the US invasion in the fallout from the September 11 attacks. While the country remains one of the most hostile places for women to live, the Afghanistan of then is not the Afghanistan of now.

Women are in parliament and they hold ministerial positions in government. They make up a significant portion of the public sector and are executives in private industries.

They also make up 40 per cent of the country’s student population.

 Afghan women journalists work at Asr News TV station in Herat, Afghanistan, 16 September 2020.
Afghan women journalists work at Asr News TV station in Herat, Afghanistan, 16 September 2020.

It will be difficult to rip those freedoms away from women who’ve grown up fighting for the most basic of human rights: to exist in public, beyond the role of a housewife.

Ms Ghafari is imploring the Afghan government not to give away those hard-won rights too easily.

“I really don't want to sit at home once again, as my mum did. I don't want to give up as my mum did during the Taliban [era],” she said.

“She had to stay at home while she dreamed of going to university.

“I don’t want that (being a housewife) - it’s my humanitarian and Islamic right as a woman for being part of society.”

'No evidence Taliban has changed'

The Taliban says it’s reformed since the days of their last government and is now willing to accept women working and studying - albeit in segregated schools.

But they’ve rejected the notion of women presiding over the high court or becoming president, and there are conflicting reports about whether they’d accept a female prime minister.

Political ethnographer and activist Orzala Nemat said there was little evidence to show the Taliban has changed its ways.

“We haven’t seen a change in their language, we haven’t seen a change in their practices,” Ms Nemat, the director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, told SBS News.

“Whenever they get a little stronger presence in a locality they make sure the schools are closed.

“The Taliban have a big challenge ahead of them to convince the people of Afghanistan that they are no longer the same Taliban that they have learnt about the world.”

Moving on - but not forgiving or forgetting

Ms Koofi is keen to move on from the past - too many Afghan lives had been lost and damaged to hold on to grudges.

Hardly anyone in Afghanistan - young or old - has been unscarred by war, she explained.

“We have to stop this bloodshed,” she said.

“I think it's time for us to accept each other, to tolerate each other."

The same goes for the Taliban, she added.

An Afghan woman holds her two-year-old nephew injured from a bomb blast in Kabul on 29 March 2016.
An Afghan woman holds her two-year-old nephew injured from a bomb blast in Kabul on 29 March 2016.
World Press Photo

“I think it's time for Taliban also to accept that Afghanistan has transformed and the women of Afghanistan [are] part of that transformation.”

Ms Koofi and her three female colleagues on the negotiating team know they have a huge burden of responsibility to ensure the progress on women’s rights continues.

“We will do everything possible to ensure that the women of Afghanistan will not experience the same experience that I went through as a teenager.”

Ms Koofi is also keen to stress these talks are a historic moment for the country - but also for the women of Afghanistan.

"We sat across the table from those people that only a few years back they would not consider having a woman in office,” she said.

"Now we sit as equal citizens."

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