The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Futureby Fawzia Koofi, Nadene Ghouri
The nineteenth daughter of a local village leader in rural Afghanistan, Fawzia Koofi was left to die in the sun after birth by her mother. But she survived, and perseverance in the face of extreme hardship has defined her life ever since. Despite the abuse of her family, the exploitative Russian and Taliban regimes, the murders of her father, brother, and husband,
The nineteenth daughter of a local village leader in rural Afghanistan, Fawzia Koofi was left to die in the sun after birth by her mother. But she survived, and perseverance in the face of extreme hardship has defined her life ever since. Despite the abuse of her family, the exploitative Russian and Taliban regimes, the murders of her father, brother, and husband, and numerous attempts on her life, she rose to become the first Afghani woman Parliament speaker. Here, she shares her amazing story, punctuated by a series of poignant letters she wrote to her two daughters before each political tripletters describing the future and freedoms she dreamed of for them and for all the women of Afghanistan.
Her story movingly captures the political and cultural moment in Afghanistan, a country caught between the hope of progress and the bitter truth of history.
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The Favored Daughter
One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future
By Fawzia Koofi
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2012 Fawzia Koofi
All rights reserved.
STORIES OF OLD
Even the day I was born, I was supposed to die.
I have stared death in the face countless times in my 35 years, but still I'm alive.
I can't explain this, other than knowing that God has a purpose for me.
Perhaps his purpose for me is to govern and lead my country out of the abyss of corruption and violence. Or perhaps his purpose is simply for me to be a good mother to my daughters.
I was my father's nineteenth child out of a total of 23, and my mother's last child. My mother was my father's second wife. When she fell pregnant with me she was physically exhausted from the seven children she had already given birth to. She was also depressed at having lost my father's affections to his newest—and youngest—seventh wife. So she wanted me to die.
I was born out at pasture. During the summer months, my mother and a host of servants would make the annual journey to graze our cattle and sheep in the highest points of the mountains, where the grass was sweeter. This was her chance to escape the house for a few weeks. She would take charge of the entire operation, gathering enough dried fruit, nuts, rice, and oil to sustain the small party of travelers for the three months or so they would be away. The preparations leading up to the trip would be a source of great excitement, my mother packing and planning every last detail before a convoy on horses and donkeys set off across the higher grounds.
My mother loved these trips. As she rode through the villages, her joy at being temporarily free from the shackles of home and housework, and being able to breathe in the fresh mountain air, were evident to all.
There is a local saying that the more powerful and passionate a woman is, the nicer she looks while sitting upon a horse in her burqa. It was also said that no one ever looked more beautiful on horseback than my mother did. It was something about the way she held herself—her uprightness, her dignity.
But the year I was born, 1975, she was not in a celebratory mood. Thirteen months earlier she had stood at the large yellow gates of our hooli (house), a large, sprawling, mud-walled, single-story structure, and watched a wedding party descend the path that snaked down from the mountains through the center of our village. The groom was my mother's husband. My father had chosen to take a seventh wife, a girl who was just 14 years old.
Each time he remarried, my mother was devastated—although my father liked to joke that with each new wife my mother became yet more beautiful. Of all his wives my father had loved my mother, Bibi jan (literally translated, the name means "beautiful dear"), the most. But in my parents' mountain village culture, love and marriage very rarely meant the same thing. Marriage was for family, tradition, culture, and obedience, all of which were deemed more important than individual happiness. Love was something no one was expected to need or to feel. Love only caused trouble. People believed unquestioning duty was where happiness lay.
My mother had stood on the large stone terrace safely behind the hooli's gates as the party of more than ten men on horseback ambled its way down the hillside, my father dressed in his finest white shalwar kameez (a long tunic and trousers), brown waistcoat, and lambskin hat. Beside his white horse—with bright pink, green, and red wool tassels dangling from its decorated bridle—were a series of smaller horses carrying the bride and her female relatives, all wearing white burqas. They were accompanying the bride to her new home, which she would share with my mother and the other women who also called my father husband. My father—a short man with close-set eyes and a neatly trimmed beard—smiled graciously and shook hands with the villagers who came out to greet him and witness the spectacle. They called to each other, "Wakil Abdul Rahman is here! Wakil Abdul Rahman is home with his most beautiful new wife!" His public loved him and they expected no less.
Wakil (Representative) Abdul Rahman—my father—was a member of the Afghan parliament, representing the people of Badakhshan, the same people who I represent today. For as long as my family can be traced back, local politics and public service have been our tradition and our honor. Politics runs through my blood as strongly as the rivers that snake all over Badakhshan.
Before my father and I became members of parliament, my father's father, Azamshah, was a community leader and tribal elder.
The Badakhshani districts of Darwaz and Koof, where my family and my last name originate, are so remote and mountainous that even today it can take up to three days to drive there from the provincial capital of Faizabad. And that's in good weather. In winter the small mountain passes are completely closed.
My grandfather's job was to help people with their social and practical problems, connecting them to the central government in Faizabad and working with the provincial district manager's office to provide services. He never once flew on a plane or drove a car, and the only way he could physically take issues to the government authorities in Faizabad from his home in the mountainous Darwaz district was on horseback or on donkey, a journey that often took him a week to ten days.
Of course, my grandfather wasn't the only one who traveled this way. Horseback or foot was the only way any of the villagers could connect with the bigger towns: It was how farmers could buy seed, how the sick could reach a hospital, how families separated by marriage could visit each other. Travel was only possible in the warm spring and summer months, and even then it posed great dangers.
Atanga was the greatest risk of all. Atanga is a large mountain bordering the Amu Darya river. This clear green river is all that separates Afghanistan from Takjikistan on the other side. The river was as dangerous as it was beautiful. In spring, as the snow melted and the rains came, its banks swelled to bursting, creating a series of deadly fast-flowing currents.
The Atanga crossing was a series of rough wooden stairs fastened to either side of the mountain, for people to climb up and then down the other side. The steps were tiny, rickety, and slippery. One small trip or mistake and a person would fall straight down into the river and be swept away to certain death.
Imagine returning from Faizabad holding the goods you've just purchased, be that a 15-pound bag of rice, salt, oil, or other precious cargo that had to last your family all winter. Tired after one week of walking, you have to risk your life negotiating a deadly pass that had probably been the demise of many of your friends and relatives already.
My grandfather could not bear to see his people killed this way year upon year, and he did all he could to force the government to build a proper road and a safer way to pass. But although richer than most people in Badakhshan, he was still just a local official living in a remote village. (Although a district today, back then Koof was considered a village.) In the end, traveling to Faizabad was as much as he could do. He had neither the means nor the power to travel to Kabul, where the king and central government were based.
Knowing change would not come in his lifetime, my grandfather decided his youngest son would take over his campaigning role. My father was just a little boy when my grandfather began grooming him for a future in politics. Years later, after months of solid lobbying, one of my father's biggest successes in parliament would be the realization of my grandfather's dream to get a road built over the Atanga Pass.
There is a famous story about the road and my father's audience with King Zahir Shah to discuss the project. He stood in front of the king and said, "Shah sahib, construction of this road has been planned for years, but there is no action—you and your government plan and talk but do not keep your promises." Although the parliament at that time was made up of elected representatives, the king and his courtiers still ran the country. Direct criticism of the king was rare, and only a brave or foolhardy man would attempt it. The king took off his glasses and looked long and hard at my father before stating severely, "Wakil sahib, you would do well to remember you are in my palace."
My father panicked, thinking he had gone too far. He hurriedly left the palace, fearing that he would be arrested on the way out. But a month later, the king sent his minister of public works to Badakhshan to meet my father and make plans for the construction of the road. The minister arrived, took one look at the mountain and declared the job impossible. There was no more to be said; he would return home at once. My father nodded sagely and asked him to go for a short horse ride with him first. The man agreed, and they rode together to the top of the pass. As they dismounted, my father grabbed the man's horse and raced back down, leading it behind him, leaving the minister alone on the mountain all night long to give him a taste of what it was like for villagers who got trapped on the passes.
The next morning my father returned to pick up the minister. He was furious, half bitten to death by mosquitoes, and he had lain awake all night terrified that he would be eaten by wild dogs or wolves. But now he had a clear understanding of how harsh life was for the local people. He agreed to bring engineers and dynamite so the pass could be created. My father's pass at Atanga is still there, and this feat of engineering has saved thousands of Badakhshani lives over the years.
But long before the pass was built and my father became a member of parliament, my grandfather had appointed the little Abdul Rahman an arbab, a leader of the village. Even at the age of 12, this effectively gave him the powers of a tribal elder. He was asked to settle the villagers' land, family, and marriage disputes. Families who wanted to arrange a good match for their daughters' weddings came to him for advice on picking suitable husbands. Before long he was negotiating road- building projects, raising funds, and meeting with the provincial officials in Faizabad. Despite being barely more than a child, he had the support of local people, so these officials were prepared to deal with him.
These early years gave my father such a solid grounding in the issues facing our community that by the time he grew into adulthood, he was ready to lead. And the timing was perfect. For this was the beginning of real democracy in Afghanistan. In the decade between 1965 and 1975, the king decided to establish a democratic parliament, and to allow people to be involved in the decision-making process by voting for their local members of parliament.
The people of Badakhshan felt they had suffered years of neglect from the central government and were thrilled at the opportunity to finally have their voices heard. When the elections came, my father was voted in as the first-ever member of parliament from Darwaz.
He was representing some of the poorest people not just in Afghanistan but in the world. A huge responsibility.
But these are also people who have their pride, who stick to their values. People who can be as wild and angry as the ever-changing mountain climate, but also as fragile and strong as the wild flowers that grow on the granite river banks.
Abdul Rahman, being one of them, knew this better than anyone, and took on his new role with nothing short of dedication.
On the day of his first address to parliament in Kabul, local people gathered at our house in the village of Koof to listen to his speech. In those days radio was the only contact with the outside world. My father had inherited the radio, a chunky wooden Russian wireless with brass controls, from my grandfather. It was the only radio in our village.
No one in Koof, except my elder brother Jamalshah, knew how to turn on the radio or even how to increase the volume. My mother was bursting with pride that her husband was a member of parliament. She threw open the gates of the hooli to allow the public in to hear the speech and called for Jamalshah to turn on the radio for her.
But he was nowhere to be seen. In panic she ran through the village calling him but couldn't find him anywhere.
The speech was about to start, and back at the hooli a crowd was gathering. Cousins, village elders, women, and children, some of whom had never heard a radio before—all wanted to hear their new representative address the parliament. She knew she couldn't let my father down but had not the faintest idea how the contraption worked.
She went close to the radio and tried all the knobs but nothing worked. As the crowd watched her in anticipation she felt a sense of rising panic and fear, and started to cry. Her husband was going to be humiliated and it would be her fault. If only she had found Jamalshah. Where was that boy? In pure frustration she brought her fist down hard on the top of the radio. Amazingly, the thump worked, and the thing spluttered and crackled to life.
She couldn't quite believe her luck. But still, no one could hear it, as the volume was too low. She hadn't the faintest idea what to do. Her friend, my father's fourth wife, suggested bringing in the loudspeaker. The women had no idea what it did or how it worked but had seen the men use it before. They carried it over and placed it next to the radio, doing what they could to connect it. It worked. The parliament proceedings were live. The entire village heard my father's speech. My mother beamed with joy.
My father soon gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working members in the king's parliament. Although Badakhshan remained desperately poor, these were good days for Afghanistan overall. The nation was secure, the economy and society were generally stable, but this wasn't something our neighboring countries could easily accept. It was the height of the cold war, and Afghanistan's strategic and geographical importance was already defining the tragic fate that would come later.
My father was outspoken, straightforward, and hard working, respected not only in Badakhshan but across the country for his generosity, honesty, faith, and fierce belief in traditional Islamic values. Yet he was unpopular with some in the king's court for refusing to kowtow to the elites or to play the political power games so many of his political peers took delight in. He was an old-fashioned politician, one who believed in the nobility of public service and helping the poor.
He spent long months in Kabul advocating for roads, hospitals, and schools. Some projects he was successful in getting funds to complete, others evaded him. The Kabul-based rulers did not see our province as a particularly important one and it was hard to get funding for major projects, something that constantly angered my father.
My mother recalled how before the annual parliamentary recess, she took the whole month to prepare for his arrival—preparing different kinds of sweetmeats and dried fruits for him, cleaning the house, sending the servants to the mountains to collect wood for all the cooking his arrival would inevitably involve. In the evenings, a long queue of donkeys loaded with wood entered the hooli gates, my mother giving directions stating how high or how big to make the piles in the wood store at the corner of the garden. In her own way she worked as hard as my father did, never accepting second best and always seeking perfection. But my father barely thanked her for it. At home he could be a terrifying tyrant. My mother's bruises were testament to that.
Each one of his wives was a political match. By marrying the favored daughter of a nearby tribe or local power holder he strategically consolidated and secured the power base of his own local empire. My mother's father was an important local elder from the next district who had previously fought with my father's village. By marrying her he essentially secured a local peace treaty.
A few of his wives he loved, two he divorced, most he ignored. Throughout his life he took a total of seven wives. My mother was without a doubt his favorite. She was petite with a pretty oval-shaped face and pale skin, big black eyes, shiny long black hair, and neatly arched eyebrows.
It was she he trusted the most, she who kept the keys to the safe and the food stores. She he entrusted to coordinate the cooking at his huge political dinners. It was she who took charge of the servants and other wives as they cooked endless supplies of scented pilau rice, gosht (lamb stew), and fresh hot naan in the hooli's kitchen.
Excerpted from The Favored Daughter by Fawzia Koofi. Copyright © 2012 Fawzia Koofi. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Meet the Author
Fawzia Koofi is Afghanistan's first female Parliament speaker and a noted activist for women and children's rights. She is currently a leading candidate for the presidential elections in 2014 and has been quoted by the BBC, Time, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, The Globe and Mail, and many others. Koofi was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009. Before getting elected to Parliament, Koofi was employed by UNICEF as a child protection officer from 2002 through 2004. The mother of two girls, she lives in Kabul.Nadene Ghouriis an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. She is a former correspondent of both the BBC and Al Jazeera English
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