Before giving her talk, “Political Transition, the Role of Women, and Progress Towards Peace in Afghanistan,” on Feb. 12, Afghan presidential candidate and human rights activist Fawzia Koofi sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss her country’s politics and advocacy.
The Daily Princetonian: As a woman running to be president, what are you expecting to be some of the challenges in a male-dominated society?
Fawzia Koofi: You know, I came a long way, like many other women of Afghanistan, and it’s not easy. The challenge would be first of all, security, because there will be many who want to kill you and finish you. And there were some assassination attacks against me — by Taliban, by others. They want to kill; they start fighting, shooting on me. The second [challenge] would be the whole political man dominancy. It’s a very man-dominated society. Women would like to have change, but they have still not come forward to say, “Yes, this is something I want.” We need to empower women to counter that stage. We need to create more models for them; we need to give them that access to resources so that they become strong. And third would be for me to run as a candidate ... because many other candidates who are men have a lot of money.
DP: President Obama is expected to announce tonight in his State of the Union address that he will withdraw half of U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next 12 months. Where do you think that will leave Afghanistan?
FK: Well, we still hope that the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan will continue, and [that] the international community doesn’t abandon Afghanistan, because we know it wouldn’t be for the interest of both sides: for the international community, U.S. in particular, and for Afghanistan. We are fighting for the same cause, which is terrorism and extremism ... I know that as a result of politics, they [the United States] want to withdraw. But in the meantime, I hope that they will stay and engage in Afghanistan. You know, it’s the matter of commitment, political and financial commitment ... But when they withdraw early, the message that they give to our neighboring countries is strong. And that could demoralize our forces.
DP: How have the rights of women and treatment of women changed from when you were a child, up to now, as your daughters are growing up?
FK: [Laughs] It has changed a lot. For me, the struggle was to go to school. It was a lot of barriers, even within my family, to allow me to go to school. For my daughters, their challenge is to go to the best school in Kabul ... And I think they have been exposed to many opportunities at this stage. Things have changed, really. When I was a child, I was the first child to be educated from ... my community. Right now, there are 10 women teachers from that district.
DP: Is there an imbalance between how women are treated in urban cities and how they are treated in rural areas?
FK: Yes, there is. It’s a main problem. There is a gap between the women who live in the rural cities and women who live in the [urban] cities ... In the villages, there is a lack of attention of the government and also access to resources, so we have women who have hardly been to any city. For them to deliver a baby, in my province, they have to walk, for instance, one week to reach a hospital. There are girls who walk two hours to school because there is no other school building in their community.
DP: In a past interview with Time Magazine two years ago, you expressed your skepticism about President Karzai’s efforts for reconciliation with the Taliban, calling it “the first step down a slippery slope.” Do you think striking a deal with the insurgents will defeat the advancement of women’s rights?
FK: I think so, because Taliban have not been very clear on what their position is on women’s rights — women’s Islamic rights. And as a Muslim woman during Taliban time, I know what that means when they say “women’s Islamic rights.” It’s not only a matter of women, but also the bigger picture of the community and society, which are concerned. Because during Taliban, for a man, they would measure the beard of a man to see the length, and if it was [too long], they would start beating the man. So it’s not only about women; it’s about basic human principles. I think we are mainly concerned because women of Afghanistan have always been a matter of compromise. So I think the world, and especially the United States, as a leader of the peace process, should ensure that women’s gains are not a matter of compromise in Afghanistan.
DP: In your memoir, “The Favoured Daughter,” you wrote letters to your two daughters, urging them to be brave in the case that one day, you might not be able to come home to them. How do you balance the need to be there for your daughters and the need for you to serve your country, which puts you in so much risk?
FK: Sometimes my daughters really want me to be there for them, and I have a greater responsibility of being a woman and a mother, especially as a single mother. And they don’t have a father, so I have double responsibility to give them enough love and give them opportunity so that they don’t feel not having a father. In the meantime, there are many other women and girls in Afghanistan [who] need opportunities to be opened up for them; they need the support to have role models. So I think it’s very contradictory decision to get involved with politics while you are a woman. But in the meantime, I think my daughters are proud of me. Sometimes they share with their classmates, “Your school building — actually, my mother built it for you.” [Laughs] So they appreciate what I do, and I think that’s a good sign once they recognize my efforts.
DP: Is Afghanistan ready for a female president?
FK: Why not?