A Dream for a War-Torn Nation: Fawzia Koofi’s ‘The Favored Daughter’

The first day of Fawzia Koofi’s life was perhaps prophetic. Koofi’s mother was disappointed she had not given birth to a boy, dismayed over her husband’s latest/seventh wife, and exhausted after 30 hours of childbirth. Koofi was—immediately after her birth—“wrapped in cloth and placed outside in the baking sun”. No one expected her to survive. But there, she screamed for a day and then her mother’s maternal instincts kicked in. This is how Koofi’s life began, and this is one of the stories she tells in the first chapter of her memoir The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future written with Nadene Ghouri.

Most likely no one expected Koofi to become a Member of Parliament (MP), to become Afghanistan’s first female Speaker of Parliament, or to be a candidate in the 2014 presidential election, either. And Koofi’s life doesn’t appear to be any safer now than it was on the day she was born. She relates that in 2010 (the last year the book covers) the Taliban were trying “harder than usual” to murder her.

Koofi herself notes she isn’t certain why she is still alive, stating (of her birth) “I don’t know why God spared me that day…Or why he has spared me on the several occasions since then, when I could have died, but he did…I know he has a purpose for me.” After reading A Favored Daughter, it’s hard to disagree: Koofi’s life is amazingly and wonderfully purposeful.

So is Koofi’s memoir, which will most likely be one of the most inspiring books of 2012. It details her life from childhood through her reelection to Parliament in 2010 and shows the complexities of not only her own life but of Afghan society. Letters to her two daughters open most chapters and often provide both touching and sobering sentiments. In one letter Koofi states, “‘Just a girl’ would have been my life story, and probably yours too. But the bravery of my mother changed our path. She is the hero of my dreams.” In another she relates: “When I was a little child I didn’t know the words ‘war,’ ‘rocket,’ ‘wounded,’ ‘killing,’ ‘rape.’…Words which sadly all Afghan children are familiar with today…Until the age of four I knew only happy words.”

Happy words are sometimes scare in this book. Koofi lost her mother and husband to illness (her husband became ill while imprisoned by the Taliban). Her father and brother Muqim were brutally murdered. And all of them were gone before Koofi turned 30.

But the book doesn’t just focus on Koofi’s personal tragedies; she tells stories about other Afghans, as well. One of the most heartbreaking is the story of a woman Koofi met while traveling as an MP. The woman was heavily pregnant and clearly unwell. Despite this, the woman shoveled snow, fed livestock, baked bread, and cleaned the family home. Koofi asked the woman if she had seen a doctor and the woman said no, because the family would have to sell a goat or a sheep to pay for the trip to the hospital. Koofi argued that the woman’s “life should be more important than a goat or a sheep”, but the woman simply “shook her head and smiled a slow, wistful smile of sadness” before replying: “If I die then my husband will marry somebody else, but the whole family is fed by the milk of the goats and the meat from the sheep. If we lose a goat or sheep then who will feed this family? From where will this family get food then?”

Still, despite the sadness and despair, Koofi tries to stay objective. She describes the atrocities committed by the Taliban—the beatings and arrests for the smallest (or nonexistent) offenses, the burning of schools and university buildings, the public executions, the torture, and the treatment of women (and notes that all were in the name of God)—but Koofi also states, on several occasions, that individuals within the Taliban could be kind. One member of the Taliban tried to help Koofi when her husband had been arrested. Of him, she says “That man changed my thinking about many Taliban. I realized that just because he didn’t share my ideals or my politics didn’t necessarily make him a terrible person. Many Afghan men aligned with the Taliban because of a shared ethnicity and culture, a sense of shared geography, or just out of economic necessity.”

And from time to time, hope and resilience overpower the fear, frustration, and desperation. Growing up, Koofi loved going to school. When she was seven, she was accepted to a local school and she relates “I remember running home to tell my mother, my scarf trailing in the mud and tripping me. My little heart was so full of excitement that I forgot everything else—my father’s death, the loss of our home, our life of poverty…I, Fawzia Koofi, was going to school!” And in another section, Koofi lightens a situation most would probably not be able to describe so humorously. After a brutal day of traveling through a war-torn region, she notes “The simplest dish is so much tastier after having spent the day dodging rockets and bullets in a pair of ridiculous high heels”.

Koofi’s relationship with her mother is also often heartwarming. Despite getting off to a less than ideal start, Koofi and her mother had a close relationship. Koofi opens part two of the book (part one ends with her mother’s death) with a letter addressed to her mother. It begins “I still wait and hope that you will come back. Even now my breath catches in my throat when I remember that you are not in this world” and later in the letter, Koofi states

“Mother, I learned from you what self-sacrifice really means… I learned from you that literacy alone is not enough to bring up good children, but intelligence, patience, planning, and self-sacrifice for others is what really counts. This is the example of Afghan women, women like you who would walk miles with an empty stomach to make sure your children get to school.”

Clearly, Koofi values education and family. But it’s just as clear that Koofi loves Afghanistan. She notes that “Even under Taliban rule, I never lost my patriotism. This was my Kabul, my Afghanistan.” In 2005, when Afghanistan decided to hold parliamentary elections, Koofi fought family opposition to follow in her father’s political footsteps and become the “sole Koofi family political representative”. The last chapter (which is perhaps more political commentary than memoir) is titled “A Dream for a War-Torn Nation” and includes Koofi’s hopes for Afghanistan: “I dream that one day Afghanistan will be a nation free from the shackles of poverty. I dream it will no longer be labeled the worst place in the world for a woman or a child to be born.”

Not surprisingly, these dreams will not come easily, and Koofi describes some of the many obstacles standing between her dreams and the reality that is Afghanistan today. These problems include “corruption, flawed religious extremism, and a river of money” from drug trade. Other obstacles come from outside of Afghanistan. Koofi warns world powers about the dangers of withdrawing from Afghanistan too soon and questions those in the West who think the Taliban can realistically have a place in a democratic government with female politicians.

Despite the uncertainty, violence, and tragedy, Koofi’s story is nothing short of inspiring. And it’s not over yet. The 2014 presidential election is still two years away, but recent articles make it sound that Koofi is serious about running. And perhaps this will bring her one step closer to realizing her dreams and leading Afghanistan into the future.

RATING 9 / 10