The Favored Daughter
The true and inspiring story of how the abandoned nineteenth child of a tribal leader overcame poverty and prejudice to become the first female member of parliament in Afghanistan. By Fawzia Koofi with Nadene Ghouri
Dear Shuhra and Shaharzad,
If we Afghans had been living in darkness in those years of war, then the days that were about to follow would truly plunge us into the blackest depths of hell. A living hell created by men who called themselves men of God, men of Islam. But these men represented nothing of the Islamic religion I and millions of other Afghans live our daily life according to. Ours is a peaceful, tolerant, and loving faith that accords all human beings rights and equal value.
I want you to understand that as a woman true Islam accords you political and social rights. It offers you dignity, the freedom to be educated, pursue your dreams, and live your life. It also asks that you behave decently, modestly, and with kindness to all others. I believe it is a true guide to living correctly for as long as you are in this earthly world and I am proud to call myself a Muslim. I have brought you up to be good and strong Muslim ladies in the future.
These men called themselves the Taliban. Their form of Islam was so alien to us it could have come from another planet.
Many of their ideas about Islam came from different cultures, mostly from the Arab lands.
These men rode in trucks and carried guns, but they promised the Afghan people they would keep the streets safe, restore order, and promote strong justice and local harmony. At the start many people believed in them, but that hope quickly turned to fear and loathing, especially for the women and girls of Afghanistan.
You were lucky not to be a young woman in those days. Very lucky indeed.
Retreat to the North
In Parwan we stayed with my brother’s driver. The man and his family were not rich, but they let us stay in an annex adjoining their house. They refused to allow us to cook, preparing all our food for us. My brother, his family, and myself were all treated like honored guests, not unwelcome burdens.
Things continued to get worse in Kabul and my sister and her husband (who was a policeman and at risk from the Taliban) came to join us. It was decided they would move on again to Puli Khumri in the north, and we would all join soon after. Although Parwan was still safe for now, it was not far enough from Kabul to remain so much longer.
And importantly for me, no one in the north forced you to wear a burqa. For me that was reason enough to go.
My sister and her husband had been in Puli Khumri, almost 200 miles away, almost one week when the Taliban started gaining ground outside of Parwan, edging closer. I was fast asleep when Mirshakay shook me awake and screamed that we needed to get into the car. The Northern Alliance had closed the Salang pass, the second-highest road pass in the world. In a feat of incredible engineering the Russians had blasted a three-mile-long tunnel right through the center of the mountain. It was a one-lane pass, only accessible in the drier months. It is also the gateway to Northern Afghanistan. The remaining Northern Alliance was worried thousands of people would now try to flee, and in doing so bring more insecurity and possibly Taliban with them. So in a brutal but strategic military move they ordered the pass, the escape route from south to north, closed—a move that trapped everyone on either one side or the other. And that meant we would be unable to join the others in Puli Khumri.
My brother had managed to get an approval letter from one of the mujahideen commanders that would allow us two cars to go through the pass. One for us and one for our security escort. One of the women in our party didn’t have either a hijab or a burqa, so I gave her my hijab. All I had left to wear was a bright red scarf. We were trying to escape Taliban control, and by now we could hear the bombs, the fighting was coming so close. If they reached us and caught us I would be badly beaten.
The escort car was also red, a Hilux pickup. I laughed at the irony of it and wondered how much more visible we could possibly make ourselves. We drove out of the house into the main street, and people were everywhere trying to escape. A large bus drove toward us. It was full of terrified-looking people; they were crammed inside, three or four hanging out of each window, some lying on the roof. They looked like bees swarming a hive.
As we left the village for the main road we joined a convoy of cars. Thousands of people were trying to escape the encroaching Taliban. The cars were full of clothes, kitchen equipment, blankets, and animals. Everything the passengers owned. People were hanging off the sides of cars, holding on anywhere they could. An injured man hanging from one of the taxis saw our car—I think he was a fighter. He was Uzbek from appearance, with a round face and almond-shaped eyes. He looked like a mujahideen fighter. Blood was running down his leg and obviously he couldn’t hold onto the side of the taxi for much longer. He made his way over to our car, holding a gun. He waved it and told our driver to stop, but the driver carried on. Then he aimed at the tire and shot. As the tire burst the car swerved and almost hit the man. I was sitting in the front of the car and I was terrified he would come and drag me out of the vehicle, but our driver held his nerve and managed to keep going. The man moved on to the cars behind, shooting desperately. I dared not look back to see if he had killed a poor family.
People had no idea where they were heading. They just wanted to get out. It was the beginning of winter, and as the rode rose up into the mountains toward the Salang pass the air temperature began to bite, the altitude made it harder to breathe, and the chill bit toes and fingers, even inside the car. The pass was already closed and those families without letters of permission had no choice but to stay on the freezing mountain or drive back home and straight into the Taliban front line. Even with the letter it took hours and hours. The commanders didn’t want their fighters on the other side of the pass to know they had lost battleground and that refugees were fleeing, so only a few cars were allowed through to make it look as normal as possible.
In the car queue my sister-in-law saw her cousin, a young girl who had recently married. She and her husband had their six-week-old baby in the car. They looked terrified and they had no letter of permission. In the freezing cold the baby would surely die. So we agreed to leave our security car behind and allow their car to take its place. Everything we owned was in the security vehicle. Our bags, money, jewelry, everything. We were promised it would be allowed through later.
On the other side of the Salang pass, the road to Puli Khumri doesn’t go over the mountain but around it, precariously clinging to the edges. Normally I am terrified of such heights and flimsy roads, but on this day I was just relieved the Taliban hadn’t caught us.
My sister-in-law had managed to arrange a place for us to stay. It only had a few rooms, and there were some 60 people already there. They were my brother’s men, former policemen, and they now had nowhere else to go. That’s why we now have so many illegal armed groups in Afghanistan. When the system collapsed those men didn’t have any options, so they just went with whoever had been their officer or leader and formed a militia. My brother didn’t want us to be surrounded by so many men, though, so he asked them to return home to their families.
At midnight we were told the security vehicle containing all our things had been allowed to pass and was here. I grabbed the bags as they were carried inside. I think I knew already that our jewelry was gone. The people who were supposed to be guaranteeing our safety had taken the lot. They were men belonging to another local commander who had done my brother a favor by sending us the escort, so there was little we could do. My sister went through hers, sobbing. She was almost manically searching through all the pockets. I thought she was hysterical, still hoping her jewelry was there. But then she pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose loudly. That handkerchief was pretty much all she had left. But at least we were safe again. For now.
Once again the traumas of my birthplace had forced my life to spiral out of my control. My dreams of being a doctor were shattered. By now the Taliban had banned all women from school and university. So even if Kabul were safe enough for us to return to, which it clearly wasn’t, there was zero hope of a return to my studies. Instead my days were spent in Puli Khumri cooking, cleaning, drinking chai in the garden. It was the life of boring drudgery my mother and sisters endured, and the one I had battled so hard to escape. I was very depressed. Days rolled into dusk, into sleepless nights and reluctant mornings when I squeezed my eyes shut to block out the sun and the gaily mocking light of another new day.
After a few weeks the Taliban reopened universities for men, but by then many male students, teachers, and professors—the country’s intellectuals—had already fled the country. Taliban rule had transformed Kabul from a war-torn city into a dead city. I honestly couldn’t say which one was worse.
People were arrested and beaten for the slightest misdemeanor. The Taliban went door to door asking people to hand over their weapons. They refused to believe that not everyone in Kabul kept guns and wouldn’t take no for an answer. If someone refused to hand the gun over or genuinely didn’t have one, they were arrested and put in prison. Some families had to go out and buy weapons just to give to them to the Taliban in order to release the person who’d been arrested.
One of the worst places someone could be taken was the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Just the mere mention of this name could strike petrifying fear into the hearts of the bravest people. This pretty, white stuccoed villa had a garden full of lush grapes and scented roses. It was situated in Share Naw (what is known as the new town area of Kabul).
Here people who had been accused of crimes against religion or what were called “morality crimes” were brought to be judged. Men without long enough beards and women caught without burqas were brought here to be beaten on the soles of their feet with wire cables, while outside Taliban guards sipped tea and told jokes among the roses. Here terrified Kabuli women who had been accused of lacking morality were brought to be judged for their “crimes” by bearded mullahs from the conservative countryside villages of southern Afghanistan. Until now, Kabul and those villages had been culturally and socially worlds apart. Women who had proudly worn the latest fashions and carried books to the university just a few months ago were now being judged by unwashed men who couldn’t read or write.
The Olympic sports stadium, a large, round-domed building that had once rung to the sounds of applause and cricket or football glories, became home to a new kind of sport—public executions. Adulterers and thieves were stoned to death or had their hands chopped off in front of cheering crowds. In grisly scenes reminiscent of a Roman coliseum, the prisoners were driven into the center of the stadium in a pickup truck, then dragged out and walked around for the crowd’s entertainment before being shot in the head or buried up to waist, then having rocks thrown at their head until they died. No matter to those judging them or the brutes casting the first stone that the thief may have stolen a loaf of bread only to feed his hungry child or that the adulteress had in fact been raped.
All this was supposedly in the name of God. But I do not believe these were the actions of God. They were the actions of men. And I am sure God would have turned away to weep.
Thousands of the Taliban’s supporters flocked into Kabul. Ultra-conservative families from the south moved in, buying houses at knock-down prices from those seeking to get out and escape. Wazir Akbar Khan, which had been one of the smartest and most sought-after addresses in Kabul, with modern, architect-designed houses, beautiful gardens, and swimming pools, became known as the “street of the guests.” Favored Arab and Pakistani fighters who had connections to the Taliban leadership were given houses. If the house was empty they just moved in and took over, and if it had inhabitants those living there were forcibly moved out at gunpoint.
Even today some families have still not regained control of properties they lost at this time. When the Taliban were defeated in 2001, many of those who had been refugees in Europe or America came back to try to take ownership again. But with no documents, post-war chaos, and corruption rife in government, it is a difficult process. Many people ask for my help in tracing property ownership. Few of them have managed to succeed. And sadly, in the past couple of years a building boom has seen the often illegal destruction of hundreds of these elegant villas, with their fruit trees and grape arbors. They are replaced with what have become labeled as “poppy palaces,” ugly Pakistani-style buildings with over-the-top decorations of mirrors, smoked glass, and lurid, fancy, patterned tiles. An architecture that owes nothing to Afghan culture and everything to post-conflict new money, all too often gleaned from corruption or the proceeds of the heroin trade.
Those houses that have survived both the war and the developers have stood the test of time and look just as stylish today as they did when they were built. Today different types of guests have taken over Wazir Akbar Khan. Now they are lived in by foreign aid workers and international journalists from global networks like BBC, CNN, and France 24. In response to the insecurity inhabitants feel living and working in a capital city with frequent suicide bombings, large sections have been barricaded off. In an area known as “the green zone” the streets are blocked with concrete bollards and checkpoints in an attempt to keep suicide bombers out. Those without identification or the correct passes are barred from entering or driving through, something that creates traffic chaos and is a constant source of frustration and anger among many Kabulis toward these latest guests.
The British Embassy has recently taken over an entire street of houses for their compound, blocking entrances at both ends. What was once a bustling, rich neighborhood with children playing ball games on the streets is now sadly a fortress, barred to most Afghans except those who need to travel there for work.
In those long days that we waited in Puli Khumri, I spent every moment hoping for a return to Kabul. The front line and the areas controlled by the Taliban and the mujahideen-led government kept shifting. But what was clear was that it was the Taliban who were slowly gaining more and more ground.
I had no idea if Hamid was still living in Kabul or if he and his family had also fled. I thought of him constantly, but I also knew there was still a lot of objection from my brothers to our marriage.
One day I was sitting in the yard, enjoying the feel of the sun on my face, watching snow fall on the mountains beyond. I was yearning for the city and wondering to myself what the weather was like in Kabul when I saw Hamid’s sister, her husband, and one of his uncles at our gate. I was amazed to see them. I let out a little squeal of joy.
It turns out Hamid had gone to our house, found the curtains drawn and no one there. He asked around and found out where we had gone. Then he realized that this could work in our advantage. If I was in mujahideen-controlled land that meant I was around armed militias and commanders who might rape me. Hamid figured my brother had enough on his plate keeping his own two wives safe without worrying about my honor on top. This might make him more open to the idea of our marriage.
So here was his sister at our door with the proposal. She and her husband, along with their three- and four-year-old kids, had come from Kabul to ask. The journey was dangerous for them. Not only was there fighting, but they had gotten stuck underneath an avalanche. It narrowly missed their car and blocked the road, meaning they had spent the night freezing. They could have been killed and I felt slightly angry at Hamid for putting them through that, but at the same time I was secretly thrilled by his newfound determination to make our wedding happen.
And Hamid was right. My brother no longer had the power he had had in Kabul. He was exhausted and stressed. But he still wasn’t quite ready to give in.
In our culture if you want to say no to someone’s proposal politely you don’t actually say no; you just give them a list of requests that they have no way of meeting. My brother knew they had risked their lives to bring this request and he couldn’t be so rude as to turn them away with no hope. But he still wasn’t prepared to let this union happen. So after we had all finished dinner he quietly told them the engagement could only go ahead if they paid for a house (which would be in my name), gave large amounts of gold and jewelry, and 20,000 dollars in cash.
That was a lot of money, especially in war time and especially for this family, who although not dirt poor, were certainly not rich either. I was not allowed to be part of the negotiations, of course. Hamid’s sister and I were in a room next door, but we strained our ears to the wall, trying to keep abreast of the proceedings. I gasped with horror when I heard my brother say it. But amazingly, Hamid’s family agreed.
Hamid’s uncle sounded a little shocked and not entirely happy, but he did a good job of recovering himself. He must have been fuming inside, but he shook hands with my brother, even going so far as to thank him profusely.
Hamid’s sister gathered her children and hugged me goodbye with a warm smile before throwing her burqa back over her head. The men put on their turbans before getting back in the car. The Taliban had made the wearing of turbans and beards law for all men.
A few days later my brother drove to Kabul to meet Hamid’s family again and discuss arrangements. That’s a normal procedure. Even though my brother did not expect Hamid’s family to meet his request, he still had to go along with the process and it was his turn to visit them and explore how their plans were coming along. But on the way he got caught in more fighting between the Taliban and the mujahideen. The Salang pass was once more closed and he was trapped on the other side. We had no news about him for 40 days. The tension was unbearable. We had no idea what we’d do if he’d been killed. His wife looked at me reproachfully, as if it were my fault he’d had to risk his life by going back to Kabul.
Eventually news came that he’d been in Badakhshan. The Taliban were gaining more and more ground, and his commanders feared they were about to take more of the central and northern provinces. So he’d been sent back to Badakhshan to help organize a new mujahideen stronghold.
Mirshakay was returned to us safely, and the green shoots of spring were already pushing through the snow when Hamid’s uncle came again. This time Hamid was with him. Mirshakay was surprised, and possibly a little horrified, when they produced the 20,000 dollars in hard cash and documents showing proof of a house purchase. But he still wasn’t prepared to give Hamid my hand in marriage. Even now he couldn’t bring himself to say a final and direct yes.
Although the family was far from rich, they did own land in Badakhshan. So they had been able to sell some of that to get the money. It wasn’t like they had nothing, but of course my brother, who owned four houses in Kabul and a house in Lahore in Pakistan, didn’t see it that way.
Once again the negotiations were strictly a male affair and we women sat in a different room. That was a strange feeling for me, sitting quietly and straining my ears to hear as my future was being argued upon like a business transaction. It reminded me of my childhood in some ways, trying to sneak up to my father’s guest rooms and listen to the discussions inside. As I listened I felt a strange mixture of pride, curiosity, and powerlessness.
When I heard they had the money, I let out an involuntary squeak. My life had been pretty much dust in Puli Khumri. No university, and I was unable to walk or go anywhere. I had no idea how marriage was going to be, but I figured it had to be less boring than where I was now.
But then the enormity of the situation suddenly hit me. Engagements in Afghanistan are binding and only in exceptional circumstances can they be broken. An engagement itself is as strong as the marriage contract. I started to think about all the warnings my brother had given me. His voice kept repeating my in head, “Fawzia jan, do not marry this poor man. You can have any man you want. You will not be able to survive on his monthly salary. Marry a rich man, a powerful man.”
The warnings rang round and round in my head and I must admit I started to have second thoughts. But it’s hard to imagine your life as a newlywed when your country is in ruins. I had no idea what was going to happen, how long the Taliban would be here, whether the fighting would ever end, where we would live, whether I would be able to study again or ever be able to work. All the plans newlyweds make together were denied us in those days. Staying alive and safe took precedence over dreams.
My elder sister saw that I’d turned a bit white. She looked at me sternly and said: “Fawzia, you must decide. Now. Right now. If you don’t want this to go ahead this is your last chance to say so. Do you understand that?”
In a last attempt to tempt me away from marrying Hamid, Mirshakay had a few days earlier promised me I could go to Pakistan and stay with his second wife, who was living in his house in Lahore. I could stay with her and go to a Pakistani university. It was a great idea. The chance to study medicine again in a country not blighted by war was a good one.
But although I barely knew Hamid, what little I had seen of him convinced me we could make it work. I knew he was an unusual Afghan man, one that would treat me like an equal and genuinely support my desire to work. He wasn’t rich and the future was uncertain in so many ways, but he still felt like the right choice for me. Because he was my choice.
As is so often the case in my family history, it took a woman for there to be decisive action. My sister told me to make a decision. I nodded a silent yes. Then she knocked and entered the men’s room and asked to speak to my brother. Outside the room she bravely and sternly told him to stop challenging these poor people. They had the money as promised. It was time for him to make decision. Yes or no.
He pursed his lips and rolled his eyes dramatically, let out a large sigh, and then agreed with her, although still reluctantly. My sister prepared a bowl of sweets and put some flowers and a handkerchief with a small red flower on it inside the bowl. I still have that handkerchief. The items in the bowl were a sign of our acceptance. The bowl was ceremoniously sent into the room where Hamid was sitting. I wish I could have seen the joy on his face when he saw it and realized his dreams were coming true at last. The sharing of sweets is the traditional Afghan way of formalizing an engagement. The sweets are shared and the groom’s family puts money in the bowl to pay for the wedding.
Hamid took a sweet, unwrapped it carefully, and ate it, then put another 5,000 dollars inside the bowl. He’d been prepared for this cost, too. At this stage the bride’s family often also puts money into the bowl to share the cost of the wedding, but my brother was still a little disgruntled with himself for giving in. So he added nothing. Even now he was pointedly refusing to make it easy for them.
The next day they came back again for lunch. I was in the kitchen from early morning. As I washed rice and peeled cucumbers I smiled as I realized how much love I was pouring into the cooking. The simple pleasure of preparing food for those they love is something all women feel at some time. It must be something so ancient within us, so much a part of our biology and nature. I was reminded of my mother cooking for my father and how she always wanted things to be just perfect for him. Here I was, doing the same. As I chopped the vegetables I made sure to cut them just so, into lovely little straight pieces that would be a delight for him to eat.
I was still not allowed to see my husband-to-be. The only glimpse I got of him was as he and his family left. I hid behind a curtain at the window and sneaked a glance. I think he knew I was going to be watching him, because he stopped and paused, pretending to scratch his head. I think he thought about sneaking a glance back at me, too, but he obviously decided it was too risky in case my brother saw.
As Hamid walked to his car I felt a surge of excitement. It had been almost six years since Hamid’s first proposal. He’d never given up on his quest to marry me. I was 21 years old and I was going to be a bride.
Published in hardback in February 2012
In Europe and Canada the book is called "Letters to My Daughters" and "The Favored Daughter" in the UK and US.