We’ve featured some pretty inspiring mamas since we began our That Mama feature. After all, we seek out amazing women from all different walks of life across Asia! When we met Fawzia Koofi though, thanks to the UN Women Singapore who brought her to Singapore to be the Guest of Honour at their recent SNOW Ball, we couldn’t help but wonder if she could be our most inspirational and frankly, heroic, That Mama to date.
A mother of two daughters, Fawzia’s daily life has always been fraught with danger, starting from the very day she was born when her mother placed her outside in the sun to die as she couldn’t face taking on any more children. Thankfully after 24 hours outside in the scorching sun, Fawzia survived (albeit with burn scars that lasted until she was a teenager) and was brought inside to be cared for.
Fawzia comes from a political family in the North of Afghanistan, had to witness her father being murdered by the Mujahideen, then struggled to get her education under Taliban rule (they also murdered her beloved brother) and dealt with her husband slowly dying from TB contracted in a Taliban prison camp. Since the overthrow of the Taliban, Fawzia has been elected as a Member of Parliament and is now running to be President of Afghanistan in the 2014 elections. As a prominent female politician in such a deeply conservative country, Fawzia faces almost daily threats to her life and lives in constant danger for her strong principles.
We sat down with Fawzia to ask her some questions about her role as a mother and how she raises her daughters in a country where the legal age of marriage is 9 years old.
Your book, “The Favoured Daughter” (which we highly recommend by the way!) is written in the format of letters to your daughters – do they grasp the enormity of what you are trying to achieve and the sacrifices you make for them?
With the security problems I face, I accept that one day I will probably die for my causes. They are anxious for me, but they are also very proud. I try to give my daughters the sense of being special, and tell them that they can do anything.
How would you raise a boy in today’s Afghanistan to be a man your daughters could marry?
It’s all about respect. I’d teach him to be someone who respects women, not who makes decisions on behalf of them.
How do you prevent yourself becoming bitter, and stay positive and hopeful with all that your country and you personally have been through?
The love of my people and my country. Afghans are proud, wonderful people, and through my life people have shown me enormous kindness and done so much for me, even under difficult circumstances.
If you were to become President next year, what is the first thing you would instate or abolish?
I have many women’s issues on my platform, but I am not only about women’s issues — I’d love to see more economic growth, leveraging the richness of the country in natural resources like minerals. We also need to focus on the rule of law: justice, peace and security, in order for the country to grow. For this we need accountable government and transparency. In the women’s arena, we need to finally pass a law against violence against women (ed: this has been proposed but held us many times in Parliament due to stiff opposition from men). I would also like to raise the legal age for marriage to 16.
How do you balance your belief in Islam with being a powerful, outspoken woman?
In my view, religion and politics should be separate. Religion is something inside you which governs your actions and the way you behave, but it doesn’t have a place in politics. Of course, that is not something that is generally accepted in Afghanistan where people use religion as a tool, so whenever they don’t like something, they can call it “un-islamic”. It is also a common practice to pay religious scholars to create religious arguments for your political agenda. Other candidates do this, so I have to too.
What can women in other countries and in particular, other mamas, do to support you and women in Afghanistan?
Help us raise awareness through media, pressure on your government, and of course, financial support. Running for President is very expensive, and I am always appreciative of financial support for my campaign.
One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
As a politician, I have constant demands on my time from the public. Often before dawn there is a queue of people needing help or attention outside my door. When my daughters really need my help though (often with something for school) I will turn off my phone and give them my full attention.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Don’t take any risks with the wellbeing of your daughters. Be aware that they can be at risk of sexual abuse even from members of your own family.
What is something that people might not know about Fawzia Koofi?
I can walk really well, even go hiking in the mountains or run across a war zone in high heels. In fact, I broke my heel on the way here today, so I have had to borrow a pair of shoes, and I can’t wait to get back into my high heels again. Walking in flat shoes just is not as easy for me!
About SNOW Ball organised by UN Women Singapore Funds raised this year at SNOW help over 9000 Karenni survivors of violence through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women and International Rescue Committee. These women living in the Ban Mai Nai Soi and Ban Mae Surin refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border will gain access to high quality care from community based help centres, allowing them to heal quickly and safely. Some of the funds raised will also be distributed to the Social Safety and Social Protection Organization (SSSPO). SSSPO is a non-governmental, non-sectarian, non-political and not for profit organization in Afghanistan that mainly focuses onto building the capacity of vulnerable women and girls by providing them with vocational training courses, legal aids, and education opportunities. Funds raised at SNOW will also support the Singapore Committee for UN Women’s public education programs in Singapore.