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Fawzia Koofi: 'I Am Afraid to See the World and Its Progress From Behind a Chador Again'

03/31/2014 01:15 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2014

Fawzia Koofi grew up in a traditional polygamist family with seven wives. Her mother tried to abandon her for being born a girl. Her father was a Member of Parliament for 25 years and was assassinated by the Mujahideen when she was just 4 years old. Koofi convinced her mother to send her to school - a family first - and she later went on to graduate from law and political science at university. Koofi, a widow and mother of two children, commenced her political career in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban. She was the first woman to be elected Deputy of the National Assembly. Today, she chairs the Women's, Human Rights, and Civil Society Committee of the Parliament and is serving her second term as Member of Parliament, representing Badakhshan, a remote and poor province situated close to China and Tajikistan.

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Photo : Rooholamin Amini / Matthieu Hackière

What gives you hope for the future of Afghanistan?

Developments in our society and especially, freedom of speech: the freedom that is pursued through the media, speech and writing. In my opinion, the freedom of speech and of the media has reached a point where no government could restrain them, even if they wanted to. Our people have experienced the power of freedom of speech. They have seen that making contact with a Member of Parliament or a Minister does not solve their problems. But, when they present their problem through the media, a wider and more influential range of people and groups hear it.

What do you consider important achievements of the new era in Afghanistan?

The existence of the Parliament, the Constitution (though it is not without its problems), and finally, the increased participation and representation of women in society.

What is your worst fear today?

My greatest fear today is a return to the past - to the Taliban. I fear that I might wake up one day and see that all the people of Kabul are going about in the streets wearing white pakols [hats]. Even though I don't really think this will ever happen, I still fear it.

If the Taliban were ever to come, they will have to realize that developments in society have advanced rapidly and Afghanistan will no longer tolerate the Taliban. But I do have these fears, because change in Afghanistan has always happened overnight. The government and state power have usually changed hands through coup d'états; the people's power has rarely been influential. This is why sometimes I am afraid to see the world and its progress from behind a chador again.

What are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan?

The most important challenge is the persistence of repressive traditions in Afghanistan politics. Certain concepts have been traditionally inscribed in our minds. For example, we have traditionally accepted that the president of Afghanistan should be a man and that he should come from a specific group. And if he didn't conform to those expectations, the belief is that the president would not be successful.

Structural discrimination - the visible and the invisible structures against women - is another challenge. This discrimination is rooted in our history. It constitutes a silent violence against women: the violence is not always tangible, but you can sense it.

The final major challenge, which should change in my opinion, is the absence of reading.

Which factors deter women from participating in social, economic, political and cultural spheres?

First, the patriarchal culture. In Afghanistan, men interpret 'power' to mean that they should exert greater pressure on women. Similarly, the heavy reliance on tradition and custom-based interpretations of religion place limits on women's participation. Finally, there is the inferiority complex of women. As women, we ourselves have accepted that men must always be present at high levels of decision-making and decide for us. Traditionally, we have lived in families where the father has had the final say. We have lived in a society where a man has always spoken the final word. It is very rare to see the necessary leadership aspirations or self-confidence that would direct women to take up powerful decision-making roles.

What are the major demands of women?

The most fundamental demand is that women be respected as human beings. Secondly, women want to play a meaningful, not symbolic, role and participate in political power, decision-making, and especially in the peace process. If women do not participate meaningfully, they and their rights will be the biggest victims in the peace process.

Furthermore, women want to see real economic changes in their lives. As women are not yet involved in making important decisions, women suffer from great economic inequalities today.

Why has the Law for the Elimination of Violence Against Women not been approved by the Parliament?

Some people believe that some articles in the law contravene the sharia. This notion is completely misconceived. Similar laws has been approved in most Islamic countries and are binding.

Furthermore, the prevailing culture tells us that if women are granted just a little social freedom (for example, if this law is approved), Islam itself will be under threat. When some of our "brothers" fear they would lose their power, they cling to it with all their might. Another reason is that the female Members of Parliament also have different opinions about the law.

"Unveiling Afghanistan, the Unheard Voices of Progress" is a campaign by Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA and FIDH, which explores views held by Afghan civil society actors. Over 50 days, 50 influential social, political, and cultural actors hope to spark conversation and debate about building a society that is inclusive of women's and human rights in Afghanistan.

You can read original interviews in Dari on Armanshahr/OPEN ASIA