I don’t usually like to read books like The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future, by Fawzia Koofi. I’m not one who likes to dwell on violence and death and misery, and I was sure this book was full of it (it was). However, I heard the author give an interview on NPR that had me riveted. She told the story of how she was her mother’s last child and, as a daughter, very unwanted. So her mother left her out in the sun to die. But after a day of hearing her crying, during which the sun gave the child second-degree burns on her face, her mother had a change of heart and decided to raise her differently than other girls…with love, education, and confidence.
Of course, all of this takes place during the turbulent years right after Afghanistan rid the country of the Russians then devolved into horrible civil war, which then created the vulnerability necessary for the brutal bullying Taliban to take over. We read about the Taliban and Afghanistan all the time, and sometimes even have opinions about it. But there is nothing quite like seeing it and understanding it from inside of it, from someone born and raised in that country and culture who loves it deeply, despite having been tormented and treated inhumanely by it.
But Koofi’s story is one of determination and hope and shows the power of one person making the strong right choices every day to bring change—slow, steady change—to a country with centuries of brutal male domination, corruption, and misplaced honor. As she says in the book, “I truly believe that people change their opinions only from first-hand experience. And opinions on gender can and do change, even among the most conservative men.” But she is one of the rare women who has been brave enough to step up, step out, and force that first-hand experience to occur. Because her father died when she was young, her brother had to leave the country for political reasons, and she is without a husband (don’t want to spoil the story for you), she has no one stopping her.
When I was halfway through reading the book, there was an incredible story in The New York Times Magazine by Eliza Griswold called “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry”. The article shows exactly how hard it is for women who still live under the male domination of fathers and brothers—Taliban or non-Taliban—where they are so undervalued that their birthdays are not even recorded, they are married off at a young age—traded for money or livestock, and often being one of many wives—and then forced to endure whatever life brings them, living under rules of behavior so strict that American women would have a hard time even understanding them, let alone living under them.
One of my favorite poems was written by a 22-year-old woman who had been married to an old man since she was 15:
Making love to an old man is like
Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus
These are women who can be legally killed by their brothers, husbands, or fathers for talking on a cellphone to a man—even if it’s not proven to be a man. Here was another poem written for the Taliban by a young woman.
You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
One day you will be sick.
According to Koofi, under Taliban rule, not only were female doctors not allowed to work, but women weren’t allowed to see any doctors at all, since all the working doctors were male. Hence, one of the worst infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. And while the Taliban might be temporarily displaced, the vicious ignorant fundamentalism and male egotism that gives rise to it (and can even be seen in our own American fundamentalist resurgence) is never far from the surface. If you feel the urge to disagree with me on this point, I ask you to read Koofi’s book. See for yourself. Try to understand from the inside what it’s like. Allow yourself to have a first-hand experience that just might change your opinion.
Another reason I felt this book was so good was it put together missing pieces for me. I vividly remember and, in fact, am periodically haunted by, an image I saw in my local paper of an Afghani man who was murdered many years ago. All I remember was the beautiful intelligence and wisdom of his eyes and some reference to a tribal leader. I remember looking at his picture and thinking that his death had been a truly great tragedy but not knowing exactly why. Now I know.
Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as “The Lion of Panjshir,” was assassinated by the Taliban on September 9th, 2001, three days before our own “9/11.” He had been trying to warn the world about the Taliban and terrorism. In Afghanistan, his death was seen much as how we as a country viewed the assassination of JFK, the end to a fragile optimism and hope. And yet, now knowing who he was—putting a story to that face of wisdom—gives me hope. It’s not just women who need to be educated and freed, but men, as well, and in that gaining of experience and wisdom and understanding—how to use words instead of swords—peace and freedom will come for everyone, especially our children and the children of Afghanistan.
In the words of a Pashtun folk poem:
My pains grow as my life dwindles,
I will die with a heart full of hope.
Speaking of hope, Fawzia Koofi is going to run for president of Afghanistan. May we all hope that she wins.