Friday, September 23, 2011

Letters To My Daughters. A Memoir by Fawzia Koofi

Letters To My Daughters is a searing memoir that is an intimate look into the recent troubled history of Afghanistan from the perspective of a young Afghani who is both a woman and the country's only elected female politician. It is intense, thought provoking and and at times heart-rending. Fawzia Koofi's memoir is written in two formats; each chapter is prefaced by a letter to her young daughters Shuhra and Shaharzad, followed by an account of her life and the cultural and political landscape of Afghanistan at that time.
Fawzia was the nineteenth of her father's twenty-three children. Her mother was her father's second wife - he had seven wives but had divorced two so that he could marry two other women. Although her father had many wives, Fawzia claims that it was her mother Bibi jan whom he loved the most and it was her mother who ran the household, who kept the keys to the storeroom and the safe and whom coordinated the cooking for the huge political dinners he hosted.

Her father had recently married his seventh wife, a 14 year old girl who gave birth to a son just three months prior to Fawzia's birth.Her mother who had already had borne seven children when Fawzia came along was distraught at yet another younger wife in the home. Upset at having lost his favour, she prayed for a son but it was not to be. Instead Fawzia was born in a remote mountain shack and left outside to bake in the fierce mountain sun. Finally after a day, her family took her back in and Fawzia's mother vowed that no harm would ever come to her again.

Fawzia's father, Abdul Rahman was a member of the Afghan parliament in 1975, the year she was born. He represented the people of Badakhshan province in the northern Afghanistan. It is one of the poorest areas of the country. Her family lived in the Koofi Valley, for which they are named.

Fawzi describes the rise to power of the Taliban from the ashes of an Afghanistan left in chaos after the defeat of the Soviets by the Mujahideen. While the West rejoiced in the Soviet withdrawal, a brutal civil war raged in Afghanistan between the factions of the Mujahideen. The country slipped into chaos and terror around the capital, Kabul as different Mujahideen struggled for control. This period was a dangerous time for Fawzi's family - her father was murdered and they had to flee their home in Badakhshan and travel to Kabul.

Meanwhile in the south, young men who had studied at the madrassas in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan began to arrive in the southern villages of Afghanistan bringing with them radical Islam, common to Arab countries. The southerners, tired of civil war and poverty, accepted these "angels of rescue"as the young men called themselves.

When a peace treaty was brokered between the Rabbani government and the Mujahideen in 1995, the Taliban influence was growing. Koofi relates the heart-breaking and catastrophic changes that occurred within Afghanistan in 1996 when the Rabbani government fled north and Taliban rule commenced. Instead of rescuing the Afghan people as they initially claimed, the Taliban began to systematically implement laws that drove the country back into the dark ages within months. Women were required to wear burkas and were confined to home, no longer being allowed to attend school. All women in any type of public life were forced out. Men had to wear beards and turbans and many cultural practices such as the traditional Afghan weddings and music were banned.

Koofi accurately refers to this and other actions as cultural vandalism - a very perceptive description of radical Islam's effect on any culture it has ever overrun. Almost overnight, public beatings, stoning and executions became the norm for the slightest violations of radical Islamic code. Televison was banned and radio broadcast nonstop Taliban propaganda. Libraries were destroyed as were the beautiful Buddha statues of Bamiyan.

At this time of her life, Fawzi was in medical school and had to give up her studies. It was not only impossible to attend school, but impossible to go to even to the market unless dressed in "the new uniform of Afghanistan", the blue shuttlecock burka. Women were not allowed to speak to men who were not blood relatives. To do so was to risk arrest, beatings and possibly worse.

Fawzi tells us what this meant to her people:

"And now that the war was officially over, the world also began to move on. The Cold War had ended, and the mighty Soviet Empire was collapsing. The Afghan fight against the Russians was no longer of relevance to the West. It was no longer broadcast internationally on the nightly news. Our civil war was over, and as far as the world understood it the Taliban were now our government. We were yesterday's story.....
But our tragedy was not over. In many way, it was just beginning. And for the next few years, the world forgot us. They were our bleakest years of need."

Fawzia chronicles in detail the cultural annihilation Afghan underwent during Taliban rule and how it affected the people. During Taliban rule she felt Afghanistan was slipping back into the darkness of time. Her family suffered greatly. Newly married to a kindly man Hamid, he was soon taken from her and beaten and tortured, eventually contracting tuberculosis. Eventually Fawzia and Hamid decided to flee northward to Badakhshan where Ahmad Shah Massoud and President Rabbani's forces were fighting the Taliban. Only when Fawzia escaped the Taliban-ruled south did she realize how much she had changed.

Life under the Taliban had changed me in ways I hadn't really understood until now....The Taliban had taken that confident girl and determined teenager and turned her into a diminutive, cold, scared and exhausted woman living beneath the cloak of invisibility that was her burka."

She realized that her attitude towards men had changed. Although interestingly, Fawzia writes that while her father did beat her mother, she felt he respected her. This is definitely a difficult thing for me as a Catholic woman in the West to understand. In one letter to her daughters, she insists that "true Islam accords you political and social rights. It offers you dignity, the freedom to be educated, to pursue your dreams and to live your life." However, I respectfully disagree with Ms Koofi. In every country where Islam is the state religion, women are not treated as full citizens, do not have the same access to education, health care and employment as do men.

There's no doubt radical Islam took it's toll on her too.

There was a huge silence inside me. Until now, I hadn't even noticed it. Little by little, it had grown with each prison visit, each woman I saw getting beaten on the streets and each public execution of a young woman who was just like me.

When the Taliban were overthrown by the American's and Afghanistan began to be rebuilt, Fawzia ran for election in 2005 and became the first woman elected to the new parliament despite the opposition of many of her fellow male politicians. She is the first female deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament - no small feat for a country that had few basic rights for women only several years ago.

Despite our difference of views on Islam, I admire Fawzia Koofi greatly. She is a brave woman who has incurred great personal risk in order to represent her northern province. Fawzia Koofi seems to me to have considerable personal integrity and a deep love of her country and I believe she desires to help make Afghanistan a place that is safe for her two young daughters and where they can live with dignity. I pray to God that she is kept safe in her work and journey's throughout her country.

I highly recommend Fawzia's memoir, Letters To My Daughters, if you wish to learn about the remarkable people of Afghanistan and wish to understand what it has happened in this turbulent country over the past 30 years. There is no doubt Fawzia is a remarkable young leader in a country desperate for good leaders. She is proof that Afghanistan and other Islamic states need the participation of women in society. She is proof of what these young women have to offer to their countries!

Book Details:
Letters To My Daughters by Fawzia Koofi
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre 2011
275 pp.

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