Afghanistan's female politicians refuse to bow to pressure

Attack on peace negotiator Fawzia Koofi underlines constant threat under which women work to create a fairer society

Fawzia Koofi, a government peace negotiator and former member of parliament, stands before a wall with photos of Afghan MPs. AP Photo
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Fawzia Koofi was lucky to survive with minor injuries when gunmen attacked her car in Kabul on Friday, just days before she was due to travel to Qatar's capital Doha to take part in the Afghan government's first direct talks with the Taliban.

The former member of parliament, one of the five women on the 21-member negotiation team, said she was injured on her right arm. “Thankfully not a life-threatening injury,” she wrote on Facebook.

The Taliban were quick to deny involvement in the attack.

Assassinations have been on the rise throughout Afghanistan and either the Taliban or ISIS are often involved.

Ms Koofi is just the latest of many Afghan women who have faced threats simply because of their involvement in politics. Still, they press on in the face of challenges that most of their male counterparts never have to endure.

“Of course it isn’t easy and there is a lot of pressure,” said Zarifa Ghafari, mayor of Maidan Shahr, the capital of Maidan Wardak province east of Kabul where Taliban violence is prevalent.

"I've received more than enough threats. I'm not afraid of dying, but I'm afraid of losing my life without having done anything for my country," Ms Ghafari told The National.

At just 27, she is the country’s youngest mayor.

Zarifa Ghafari of Afghanistan delivers remarks at the 2020 International Women of Courage Awards at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 2020. (Photo by Erin Scott/Sipa USA)No Use UK. No Use Germany.

Ms Ghafari’s car was riddled with bullets while she was driving in Kabul in March. She was unhurt, but it was not the first time she had been targeted. “I have to get used to it,” she said immediately after the attack. “This is Afghanistan; sadly it still seems to be the norm here.”

Just as with the attack on Ms Koofi, no one claimed the attempted assassination of Ms Ghafari.

The young mayor lives in Kabul and usually makes the two-hour journey to Maidan Shahr in the early morning, returning each night, because she says it would be too dangerous for her to stay in her constituency permanently.

Ms Ghafari spoke to The National from her apartment overlooking the Afghan capital, a red teddy bear holding a heart reading 'love' on her couch, certificates and awards decorating her wall, and a pile of books stacked in a corner.

She said women politicians faced “a lot of pressure, often from both the society at large and even their own families”.

“It can be intimidating. Many men still don’t believe in the power and presence of women in authority. Nothing is equal here; even the peace deal doesn’t mean anything if the Taliban doesn’t believe in human rights, freedom of expression and gender equality.”

I love my country and I will never stop working for it, even if I have to die for it

To her, the horrors of violence she has seen throughout Afghanistan are traumatising, but also an incentive to keep pushing forward.

“I love my country and I will never stop working for it, even if I have to die for it,” she said.

Women in Afghanistan have come a long way since the years of Taliban leadership that denied them rights, freedom and even education. According to Unesco, Afghanistan’s female literacy rate is only about 30 per cent, compared with 55 per cent for males.

Afghan women, and the society as a whole, have changed significantly with the emergence of female entrepreneurs, political leaders and nightly news anchors, said Belquis Ahmadi, senior programme officer at the United States Institute of Peace. But with direct peace negotiations between the Taliban and the government imminent, women fear yet another possibility: “Their hard-won rights to participate in the nation’s political and economic life could again be washed away.”

Nilofar Ibrahimi a member of parliament in a show of solidarity with ousted lawmaker, Semin Barakzai, joined Barakzai in a hunger strike along with four young university students inside a protest tent outside parliament in Kabul on October 12, 2011. Ibrahimi and four students joined politician Barakzai whose been on a hunger strike to protest against her disqualification from parliament for  11 days. Barakzai, a 30-year-old mother of three and one of nine MPs expelled from the national assembly over vote rigging claims, has refused to eat until she is reinstated to her parliamentary seat or her case re-investigated. AFP PHOTO/ Tauseef MUSTAFA (Photo by TAUSEEF MUSTAFA / AFP)

Nilofar Ibrahimi, a member of parliament, said threats against women were all too common, placing a far greater psychological burden on them than on male leaders.

"I hear about it all the time," Ms Ibrahimi told The National. "Several intelligence reports claimed that the Taliban planned to target my vehicle on the way to parliament. We have to be prepared for such challenges and threats."

And while she is “full of energy” to work for women’s rights in Afghanistan, the mother of five was prompted to send her children overseas for safety, admitting that although it is hard for her to be far from her family, she did not want her position to threaten their lives.

“As for me, I’m here to stay, fighting for the day when women are viewed as equal partners with equal rights,” Ms Ibrahimi said.

Alongside Ms Koofi, Ms Ghafari and many other leading women in war-torn Afghanistan, she is in good company.