In her memoir, which includes letters to her young daughters, Fawzia Koofi suggests audacious goals: “Don’t die without achieving something,” she tells them. “Take pride in trying to help people and in trying to make our country and our world a better place.”

At least three times, assassins have tried to kill Koofi, an Afghan politician and one of four women to participate in peace negotiations with the Taliban. She fled her homeland after the Taliban returned to power, but Koofi still fights for women’s rights in a nation where no such rights are assured. The Taliban recently decreed — again — that females cannot attend school or work in certain fields. Women are restricted in what they can wear. And victories Koofi helped to win – like including the names of women on their own vital identification documents — could be at risk.

She was born in 1975, into a country in turmoil. Her father, also a politician, was murdered by rebels in 1978. Her mother died when she was 17. Koofi was the only daughter her family allowed to go to school. After Taliban rule in the late 1990s dashed her dream of becoming a doctor, she eventually earned a master’s degree in business and management from Preston University in Pakistan. 

She sees no disconnect between her Muslim faith and equality for women. “True Islam accords you political and social rights,” she writes in her memoir. “It offers you dignity, the freedom to be educated, to pursue your dreams and to live your life. It also asks that you behave decently, modestly and with kindness to all others.”

In a wide-ranging discussion with Deseret Magazine, Koofi expressed disappointment — even sorrow — that America and its allies had pulled out of her country, leaving Afghan women to lose all the ground they had gained. But she also talked about leadership, courage and fighting for a country’s destiny.

Deseret Magazine: Are there women in leadership with the Taliban in power?

Fawzia Koofi: Zero. In a matter of a few hours, women lost everything they had.

DM: What do societies lose when female voices are excluded?

FK: To have policies and programs friendly to all citizens in a country, you need to hear from both genders. In Afghanistan, surveys indicated that people were happy with female politicians. Women are especially good at managing small things. They don’t talk about big issues. They talk about people’s daily needs and then deliver those small things. They’re accessible to the people. They bring diversity and wisdom and knowledge to the table. When we were negotiating with the Taliban, they initially believed we were adopting positions to accommodate the West, not because it’s what our people want, what our country needs, what we deserve or are qualified for. But over time, even the Taliban realized that we were there because as women we were much more aware of the situation in our country. 

DM: So, women know the pulse of family life in a different way than men?

FK: Absolutely. For instance, when it comes to the needs of a family, whether policies will benefit women and children and education, women have much different experiences. As mothers, we understand what it means to have a developed community, a school with safe drinking water, a road that is safe for our girls to take to school. Those things come from personal experience, as well.  

Leaders are created as events and life unfold, but women should never wait for their chance to come. They should create it for themselves.

DM: Why did you choose politics?

FK: Politics was in my genes. My father was a member of parliament. People have always expected me to solve their problems or help them at different stages of life. But I actively chose to get into politics when the Taliban excluded all women from all social and political spheres during their first time in power. Politics is not about pressuring people and whipping women in the streets, killing men and depriving society of progress and development. I was a young student then, but I knew it was wrong. That gave me more passion.

DM: You choose hard roads. Why?

FK: Certain experiences and challenges in my life shaped me. I realized that as a woman in this world, you have to work harder to access the same space that a man occupies. But some of it also comes from my parents. My father was a tough, outspoken politician. My mother was very, very nice. She lost everything. She lost her husband and her children, her house, and we had to start from scratch — like I did. I lost my father, I lost my mother. I lost brothers. Several times, I lost my home. I lost my husband. I had to start over again when I left Afghanistan. I don’t know where she was able to find that strength to always be graceful. 

DM: As a mother, do your daughters drive your passion?

FK: I was basically raised by a single mother. Then three or four years after I got married, my husband passed away and I became the single mother of two girls. Many people in the community and my family, my friends would tell me this is a tough country for a woman, you need to get married, you need a son to complete your life. How else can you cope with all these social barriers? And that gave me more reasons to fight for women’s space. I always wanted to protect my daughters. When you are a public figure, of course, there are people who hate you for what you do. I wanted to give my daughters a better chance because I always faced discrimination. 

DM: How can countries build strong women leaders?

FK: Leaders are created as events and life unfold, but women should never wait for their chance to come. They should create it for themselves and for others, and have the courage to take the opportunity, even if it’s not there, being decisive in what they want to do and believing in themselves. That’s when you can be truly honest to yourself and motivate others to believe in you.

DM: You’ve said women are not in the same position as men even in the most democratic societies. What does that mean?

FK: Look at the United States. Have you had a woman president? Look around the world. Maybe 22 countries are led by women. And they’ve had to go through such adversity to get to where they are. They have the guts, I would say, and the shoulders and the arms to be able to face that situation. So, yes, I think gender imbalance and gender-driven politics are common phenomena. It’s not only in politics. There are certain professions that the world still sees as a man’s job, not a woman’s job.

DM: How important is education?

FK: It’s the deciding factor. I had to struggle every minute of my life to get educated. When I was going to school and university, there were days my brothers would tell me to quit. You can read and write, they said, and that’s enough for a girl. But my mother was always there to support me. If I was not educated, my destiny would have been in some village in Afghanistan, raising children. That’s a good thing, but we have enough mothers who can stay at home. How many women are changing the game? That’s why the Taliban target girls’ education. They are afraid that if more women are educated, they will not allow their boys to be radicalized.

DM: But it’s bigger than one country, isn’t it?

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FK: Women in Afghanistan ask me, what is the world doing about our situation? Do they know? Yes, they know. But information moves so fast that people hear it today and forget it tomorrow, when there are other priorities. But if the world forgets and doesn’t help Afghan women to return to a normal life, the consequences of a repressive regime will impact global security. I left almost a year ago. I could just live peacefully in a different country and ignore what’s happening, but I believe that gender apartheid for them means discrimination for any of us anywhere. American women should not forget that no matter where our sisters are living — in Iran, in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world — if they are suffering from gender discrimination, it can get to our workplace, to where we live, to our homes, if we don’t stop it there.

DM: Any last word?

FK: Never turn anyone away from your door because you never know when the day will come that it is you who will need to throw yourself at the mercy of another’s door.  

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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