Fawzia Koofi remembers the first time she spoke back to a man. She was in the fourth grade, and had just scolded her cousin for calling her “nobody” -- a common insult for young girls growing up in Afghanistan.
“I had to start breaking taboos in our family,” Koofi, who at 38 is now considering a run to become the country’s first female leader, said in an interview. “You have to really put your forehead in stone to face the challenges.”
That determination is now motivating her to champion women’s rights in Afghanistan even after surviving two Taliban assassination attempts. Koofi, a lawmaker since 2005, plans to decide this week whether to run in an April election that will test the extent society has changed more than a decade after the U.S. invaded.
Afghanistan’s next leader will face a Taliban insurgency that is becoming more deadly as President Barack Obama prepares to withdraw most of the 60,000 U.S. troops stationed in one of the world’s poorest countries. Koofi said the global community must stay engaged to avoid a return to Taliban rule, when women were forced to cover themselves head-to-toe in public and denied education, employment and adequate health care.
“That’s a worst-case scenario,” Koofi said in the Sept. 27 interview in Singapore, where she was attending a fundraising event. “We are hoping for a best-case scenario, which will be a political transition in 2014, having elections, having a strong government in place and then paving the way for military transition.”
The U.S. and Afghanistan are working on an agreement to allow the presence of American troops in the South Asian country beyond 2014, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Sept. 27. Failure to reach a deal would derail progress made in the country’s security, he said.
Civilian casualties from Afghanistan’s conflict with Taliban guerrillas jumped by almost a quarter in the first half of this year, the United Nations said in July.
Presidential candidates have until Oct. 6 to register. Among those expected to run is the runner-up in 2009, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister.
Koofi said her gender, along with a shortage of money needed to run a competitive campaign, puts her at a disadvantage. President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled the country since the Taliban’s ouster, is constitutionally banned from standing again due to term limits.
“She is a qualified and hardworking Afghan politician, but our conservative and traditional culture underestimates Afghan females,” Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based analyst and leader of a political party affiliated with the opposition that has no seats in parliament, said of Koofi. “Our people support leaders who have a power base and weapons.”
Koofi hails from Badakhshan in northeastern Afghanistan, a mountainous province bordering Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. From the moment she was born, Koofi has fought a culture where men are more valued than women.
Her mother wanted a son to please her father, who had seven wives. Upon delivery, she fell ill, and Koofi was left to die under the hot sun until her mother recovered.
“She didn’t want another girl to suffer as much as she suffered, so therefore she wasn’t happy when she delivered me,” said Koofi, the 19th of her father’s 23 children. “Later on my mother substituted all the suffering that I faced in my first days of life. She really gave me a lot of love and she was a role model for me.”
Koofi also had to fight for an education. She endured taunts and physical abuse from her brothers as she insisted on becoming the first girl in the family to go to school.
“When he wasn’t happy, he said no you cannot go to school today,” Koofi said, referring to one of her brothers. “And he would tear my bag.”
She persevered, and after the Taliban fell she became the only female staff member of the United Nations in Kabul, Koofi wrote in The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future. Her husband died two years later of tuberculosis he caught in a Taliban prison, leaving her to raise two children on her own.
“To remarry would be to betray his memory,” Koofi wrote in the 2012 autobiography. “I still feel this as strongly now as I felt it in the weeks after he died. But politics became a husband of a different kind.”
Koofi, who sees former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an inspiration, became the first women in Afghanistan to become second deputy house speaker. She was re-elected in 2010.
The Taliban have already tried to kill her twice, most recently in 2010. Last week, she said her security advisers told her the Taliban were again seeking to assassinate her.
“It’s an every day challenge -- it’s not easy,” Koofi said. “I could come to Singapore or any other beautiful country in the world and live freely as a human being like many other women do. But I think my stay in Afghanistan does make a small contribution to change the lives of other people.”