It’s hard to believe that the woman in traditional hijab sitting before me was younger than me. Apart from the fact that we’re both women born in the 70s, single mothers with two children and published authors, our lives were as different as night and day.

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When Fawzia Koofi was born, she was left in the sun to die.

Her mother was the second of seven wives, and she was the 19th daughter of her father. An unwanted daughter. In a culture that favoured males, her life was one episode of discrimination after another. In our hour-long conversation, she openly used that word – “discrimination” – although in her book, I don’t recall it written.

Yes, I read Fawzia’s book from cover to cover.

So just how different were our lives? In her childhood, she witnessed the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, then the Mujahideen who chased the Russians out but started a civil war that saw her father and brother brutally killed. She was 17 when the Taliban rolled into Kabul on pickup trucks…

There were many instances where she could have been killed, and Fawzia writes in her book The Favoured Daughter that she believes she was saved for a purpose.

It takes a special kind of woman to overcome the odds stacked up against her. Under the Taliban, she was not allowed to go to school, she had to wear a burqa, and be accompanied wherever she went by a male companion of blood relation.

The distinctive blue burqas of Afghan women under the Taliban

The blue burqas of Afghan women under the Taliban

But this feisty girl risked her life – amidst disapproval from her family, especially her brothers – to go to school and study English. She would never finish medical school and become a doctor (as she had hoped), but her proficiency in English and her work with children landed her a job with UNICEF.

She was then the first and only Afghan woman working full-time with the United Nations in Kabul. And her work with the U.N. brought her into the poorest communities of Afghanistan and opened her eyes to the plight of its people – especially women and children.

This led to a political awakening.

In 2005, she stood for an “internal election” within her family to be the sole representative of the Koofi family (which has a political legacy, as her father and grandfather were politicians) in the provincial elections. Despite the odds against her, Fawzia was chosen over her brother, and went on to win the elections and a place in Afghanistan’s Parliament. Soon after, she was elected Deputy Speaker of Parliament, a prominent position for an Afghan woman in politics.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting Fawzia Koofi because I was invited by the Singapore Committee for UN Women to moderate a 2-hour session with her at The Arts House. The session was intended to be held at The Blue Room, but had to be shifted last minute to the Chamber at Old Parliament House because of the swelling crowds.

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Where Singapore’s Members of Parliament used to meet to debate on issues of national importance

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When she arrived at The Arts House, the audience was in the midst of an exodus; so she held my elbow and said, “Let’s have a chat.”

We found ourselves a cosy corner and talked about nothing in particular. I thought she might have wanted to define the boundaries of our conversation, but when I asked her if there were things she preferred not to talk about, she said no. Nothing was off limits.

I found myself telling Fawzia that we do have several things in common. And when I got to the part where I said I was also a single mother of two, she looked at me gently and asked, “What happened?”

For a woman who had been rushed from TV to radio interviews all morning (and looked visibly tired), she showed me kindness and concern in her personal question. Of course, I had an unfair advantage: From her book, I knew her husband had died of Tuberculosis. He’d been arrested by the Taliban countless times and beaten, and the conditions in the prisons were so bad it weakened his health. He never did recover, even with medication.

“Would you remarry?” I asked Fawzia.

She smiled and shook her head. “No, it’s a little difficult now with my life in politics.”

Just two days earlier, Fawzia had launched her Presidential campaign. She heads a political coalition called the Movement for Change in Afghanistan and will be standing for elections in 2014. She is the first woman in Afghanistan to head a political party.

But Firsts aren’t new to Fawzia Koofi.

She was the first girl in her family to go to school… the first woman in the family to enter politics… the first woman to work in the United Nations in Afghanistan… the first woman to head a political party… and if she wins in 2014, the first female President of Afghanistan.

As with all trail blazers, her life is the target of countless death threats. It’s said that there are 30 known Taliban militants who are trying to kill her. It’s no wonder. She stands up and speaks out against child marriage and violence against women in a society that’s steeped in culture and tradition and religious conservatism.

Photo credit: Arthur Kade

Photo credit: Arthur Kade

How does she deal with the reality that she could be killed at any time?

Interestingly, her book starts with a letter to her two daughters. The first words: “Today I am going on political business to Faizabad and Darwaz. I hope I will come back soon and see you again, but I have to say that perhaps I will not...”

I asked her about these letters to her daughters, scattered throughout her autography (co-written with Nadene Ghouri, an award-winning journalist and broadcaster with BBC and Al Jazeera). She confirms they are farewell letters. The truth is that she never knows when she will be assassinated, and she has to prepare her daughters for that everyday.

I can’t even begin to imagine how tough that is.

I was reminded of Aung San Suu Kyi and the internal struggle she felt too when the military junta in Myanmar made her choose between staying in Yangon to fight for democracy or to join her husband and two sons (whom she had been separated from) in England.

Aung San Suu Kyi with her family, in the early years

Aung San Suu Kyi with her family, in the early years

Aung San Suu Kyi knew then that if she left Myanmar, the junta would never let her return. And so she stayed on under house arrest. She missed out on most of her sons’ growing-up years, and she wasn’t there when her husband died of prostrate cancer.

But from my conversation with Fawzia, I understood that she was doing this for her daughters’ future. Her eyes would light up whenever she talked about them. “Shuhra wants to be the President of Afghanistan one day and Shaharzad wants to be a space engineer,” she reveals with a chuckle. “Shuhra tells me I have to be President, so that when she runs for President, she can say she was the daughter of the President!”

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But then, her fight for Afghanistan’s future is not just for her girls, but for millions of other girls in the country. Fawzia shares with pride that since the Taliban were removed from power, more girls are going to school. They still do risk their lives for an education (some walk for 2 hours to get to school), but of the 7 million children enrolled in Afghan schools today, 3 million are girls. That’s an impressive 40 percent.

IMG_6020“So I am guessing then that one of the reasons you wrote the book was to change perceptions – of Afghanistan and Afghan women,” I say to her. Even before I could finish my sentence, she was nodding vigorously.

“Afghanistan is in transition,” she asserts. “And I represent the progressives in society. Many of my young voters are on social media, and 85 percent of the country say they do not want the Taliban to come back to power. People in Afghanistan want change, but they need a strong leader who will lead them in this movement for change.”

She reiterated this point at UN Women’s S.N.O.W. gala event the night before, when she said that what Afghanistan needs now is investment in its potential – in business and its natural resources – and not for well-intentioned people to just keep throwing charity money at them.

When I asked her how we could support her in her mission, she said to spread the word – be it on social media or otherwise – about progress in Afghanistan and her commitment to further that progress through education, human rights and gender equality.

But how does she plan to do this? I found it hard to imagine how a woman without an army to support her could drive such progressive changes in a country where force and violence have traditionally been the language of change.

“Times change. In my mother’s time, women did not go to school. I had to fight to go to school. Now my daughters fight to get into the best schools!” She reasoned.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

Photo credit: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

Although I wasn’t fully convinced, I could not deny the fact that I was sitting opposite this young woman in a red hijab, interviewing her in this grand Parliamentary chamber in Singapore because she was a prominent Afghan politician, human rights activist, and Presidential candidate. Would that have been possible a few years back under the Taliban?

(Photo: Leslie Lim)

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

“You initially wanted to a be a doctor. But the idea of being President of Afghanistan was mentioned several times in your book in relation to your mother,” I said towards the end of our conversation. “How much did your mother play a part in your decision to be President?”

Fawzia smiled in acknowledgement. In her eyes, I could see that she was grateful I had drawn her mother into our conversation at that point. “My mother always said I was special, that I was destined for something special. And being President of Afghanistan was her way of expressing that. That’s why it’s so important for us as parents to make our children feel special, to believe they can do and be anything.”

Without a doubt, it was an afternoon of insights. While Fawzia spoke in lofty ideals, I did not doubt that this women of Firsts could break down barriers once more and surprise the international community. After all, hasn’t it been the story of her life?

To see democracy, human rights and gender equality flourish in Afghanistan is what Fawzia Koofi lives for, and would willingly die for.

As I joined the rest in a standing ovation, all I could think of was how brave this young woman beside me was. Yes, we were similar only in surface details. Her destiny was one reserved only for someone special, someone saved for a purpose.

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

Fawzia Koofi was born into the world an unwanted daughter. But her journey these past 38 years has led her to a space where she has indeed embraced her fate as the favoured daughter.

And it will be a big day in Afghanistan when she does eventually lead that movement for change.

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With Afghan presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi after our UN Women session

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