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Fawzia Koofi: ‘Our weapon is our tongue’

The Tab sat down with political activist Fawzia Koofi to discuss her experience of life in a politically turbulent Afghanistan and her work to improve educational rights for women under the Taliban

Last Tuesday (31/1), The Tab sat down with Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan political activist who works to combat the oppression faced by women under the Taliban regime. She is particularly passionate about improving educational rights for young girls.

Koofi has had a distinguished political career as the first female Second Deputy Speaker of the Afghanistan Parliament and one of the few women involved in the recent Doha negotiations with the Taliban. However, since the Taliban’s recent re-occupation of Afghanistan in August 2021, Koofi was forced to flee the country due to threats to her safety.

Koofi spoke to us about her experience of life in Afghanistan, her continued efforts to improve the educational rights of Afghan women, and what the rest of the world should be doing to help in the current situation.

Early life

Beginning with a discussion of her early life in Afghanistan, Koofi recalled a childhood filled with struggle and loss. She began life as an “unwanted child” with her mother being reluctant to have a girl that she would be unable to protect from the suffering experienced by Afghan women. Koofi lost many of her family members, including her father, and had to flee her home village due to war; these experiences that Koofi said gave her “enough reasons to fight against discrimination and injustice.”

Fawzia Koofi speaking at the Cambridge Union (Image credits: Tobia Nava)

Political career

Speaking on her entrance into the world of politics, Koofi described how she was inspired after the 1996 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in which abuse towards women became a normalised aspect of daily life. She watched “women whipped in front of my eyes” and was determined to “change things for others.”

Inevitably, Koofi faced countless challenges as a woman attempting to enter into the male-dominated sphere of politics. These began inside the home as she had to win “an internal family election” in order to convince her brothers to allow her to begin a political career.

After persuading her family, Koofi ran for parliament in 2005. Once elected, she worked to voice women’s issues and create real change within Afghanistan, including identifying 25 forms of violence that were otherwise “regarded as part of women’s life.”

After persuading her family, Koofi ran for parliament in 2005. Once elected, she worked to voice women’s issues and create real change within Afghanistan, including identifying 25 forms of violence that were otherwise “regarded as part of women’s life.”

However, her political journey remained difficult. As a woman in Afghanistan, Koofi described how “the more you gain support and become powerful, the more you create enemies for yourself”. This outspokenness and willingness to challenge the status quo was what resulted in Koofi becoming a target of Taliban forces.

Even despite being unable to return to Afghanistan in the current situation, Koofi remains dedicated to her work. She holds online classes with young girls in Afghanistan, working to deliver them the education the Taliban government has denied them. She describes how every morning she calls her students, who “give me the energy in the morning to start my day […] they give me the feeling that I am home”.

International responsibility

As the Taliban continue to occupy Afghanistan, Koofi describes how many members of the population blame “the international community” for the current events. The negotiation of a deal with the Taliban in the 2020 Doha agreement “empowered the Taliban to return”.

When the announcement was made in April 2021 by US President Joe Biden that troops would have fully left Afghanistan by September 2021, Taliban troops were emboldened. Koofi described a “demoralisation” of the Afghan troops who began to believe “the Taliban are coming anyway because that’s what the Americans want, so we should flee the village, and flee the district, and let it go to the Taliban”.

A fascinated audience at the Cambridge Union. (Image credits: Tobia Nava)

Hope for Change

Koofi offered two solutions for what can be done internationally to help the situation in Afghanistan. On an individual level, she urged people to connect with Afghan girls, supporting them in their educational efforts and helping them with their mental health, which has become an increasingly common struggle.

In an international sense, Koofi said that unless “we change the political […] ecosystem in Afghanistan, nothing else will change, and how we can change that is we need to really support a political alternative for Taliban”. This can be done through supporting civil society activists, helping to mobilise them as real political resistance. She highlighted that while the Afghan people were hugely grateful for the international humanitarian aid they have received, this did not offer a permanent solution.

Koofi reflected on how she is “very grateful for the world citizens, for the global community”. However, she has received “a lot of sympathy for what I say, but not real action.” She calls for the people of the world to work to influence governments globally and encourage tangible change for the people of Afghanistan.

She spoke directly to the students of the University of Cambridge: “As intellectual students […] influence your government, don’t let it die, don’t let this issue die, because otherwise, the consequence […] is going to be huge for security, for global security.” She urged the students of Cambridge to remember that the women and girls of Afghanistan know how to connect with the world via technology, but what they need is “meaningful solidarity.”

However, Koofi remained positive, adopting the outlook that “within the problems, you find opportunities.” Despite the continued challenges, Koofi described how this has mobilised women to fight for their rights, demonstrated by the groups of women that have been recently protesting in Kabul.  She reflects on how as women, “we are writing the new narrative”, and calls for a new political office or forum which will enable women’s voices to be heard in the political discussions about the future of Afghanistan.

Fundamentally, Koofi remains true to her core value of “standing for equality. No matter what gender or race or religion you come, we’re all equal before the law and we are all equal human beings.”  She is motivated by her belief that the Taliban regime will not endure, as “people power will always prevail.”