As It Happens·Q&A

She risked everything for women's rights in Afghanistan. Now she could lose it all

As the Taliban advance toward Kabul, leaving a bloody trail in their wake, Fawzia Koofi doesn’t know what will happen to her, her daughters and other women who have worked to champion gender equality in the country.

As the Taliban carve a path to the capital, Fawzia Koofi says the U.S. has abandoned the women of Afghanistan

Fawzia Koofi is a women's rights activist, former Aghan MP and member of the Afghan delegation that was attempting to negotiate peace with the Taliban before the U.S. withdrew its troops from the country. (Pavel Golovkin/The Associated Press)

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As the Taliban advance toward Afghanistan's capital of Kabul, leaving a bloody trail in their wake, Fawzia Koofi doesn't know what will happen to her, her daughters and other women who have worked to champion gender equality in the country.

The Taliban have been rapidly gaining power in Afghanistan since U.S. President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of American troops from the country earlier this year. The militant group has captured 12 of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals as of Thursday, and U.S. intelligence sources predict it could seize the capital city of Kabul within 90 days

Koofi, a peace negotiator and former Afghan MP, has survived multiple assassination attempts during her career, including one last year, as she fights for peace and women's rights. Now she fears that work will be unravelled. 

She spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal from Kabul, where she has been visiting the makeshift camps popping up all over the city as people flee violence in the north. Here is part of their conversation.

You were just at a camp, as I understand it. What are you seeing there?

A lot of families had to leave their villages and their communities, and they were in search of a safer place. They actually came to Kabul in the last few days. They were in the parks, in the streets. They were basically all over Kabul with their families, younger girls, boys, women that were really not well, some of them just delivered babies. So [a] very, very chaotic situation. People in desperate need of help.

There's no one to help them, it sounds like.

The government, with the support of some private sectors, now started to move them to some buildings, which are under construction or incomplete buildings, which do not even have ... hygiene facilities or water.

But most of them are still in the parks ... and in the street. They basically sleep in the parks. There [are] no tents, no nothing.

It's a very horrible situation, unfortunately, and it makes it difficult for everyone, especially for women and girls. Because can you imagine if a woman does not have a place to use as a washroom for the whole day? And then in the evening she waits to go, it becomes darker, and then she goes out, you know, just somewhere.

Some of these women have special needs. They need special considerations. They were able to share those special needs with me. They have nothing. They are psychologically affected, horrified, [and they] left their houses in the midst of war. Their houses were destroyed by rocket launches, by fighting.

Families from Afghanistan's northern provinces, who fled from their homes due the fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces, take shelter in a public park in Kabul. (Reuters)

You said in the spring that the U.S. troop withdrawal is a moral defeat for that country. What is it for Afghanistan? Is this your worst fear realized?

We all know that their untimely announcement for withdrawal well before a political deal was agreed upon put Afghanistan in chaos. A lot of places actually [fell into] the hands of Taliban, not because the Taliban were strong, [but] in many places because the government was weak, because there was corruption, lack of leadership [and] people were not happy.

Contacts from across Afghanistan tell me that the war has actually taken everything from people. And in some places the Taliban controls, women's rights are seriously violated. I have been receiving reports of forced marriages in some places. The shopkeepers or the local merchants, they don't dare to go open their shops. There are reports that their wealth and shops are looted.

I'm very disappointed with what's happening. We're all very disappointed, especially the women of Afghanistan.

What can be done at this point?

The international community could still use their political leverage. The United Nations Security Council, the U.S., which has signed a deal with the Taliban, the regional countries, could actually stop Taliban from taking over militarily in the state, speed up the peace negotiation and agree on a political power-sharing [deal].

As the Taliban keeps advancing, it appears getting closer to Kabul. What would happen, do you think, if the Taliban takes over there?

What I know is that people are very much afraid because in a military situation, it's the people that are so defenceless and so helpless. 

If it was for a peaceful demonstration, if it was for the elections, then we would encourage people to use their democratic rights to protest, to actively participate in politics. But when people speak up and they are killed, there is nobody that can do anything. 

I'm sorry I got emotional, but I feel so powerless in this situation because I was always with people. People respected me. I was supporting them. Now to see them in this horrible situation, and I don't know what will happen to me, and I don't know what will happen to other women's rights activists, to other women who are in Kabul.

Koofi at her home in Kabul on Aug. 26, 2020, recovering from a gunshot wound from a failed assassination attempt. (Shadi Khan Saif/Reuters)

The promise of all the international involvement in Afghanistan over the decades was to make it better for the Afghan people. And with all due respect to the countries and the soldiers who spent so much time there, and many perhaps had the best intentions, but many, I think it's safe to say, are wondering what was the point? What has been left for the people of Afghanistan now? And I wonder how you feel?

I know that there were a lot of friends and partners [in the] international community that helped us in the past 20 years, worked side-by-side in ensuring that women get to school, women get to work, Afghanistan institutions are strong [and] democracy works. We remember those countries with good intentions, and we do appreciate them.

But I must also say that a lot of women of Afghanistan and people of Afghanistan in general are very disappointed with what happened in terms of their strategic partnership with the United States, because it becomes even worse for women. 

In the past 20 years, we actually were very vocal in protecting the values of democracy, in speaking about our rights and demanding more liberties. We were in the forefront of all of that. Now to be left alone by the same partners with whom we worked, with whom we actually campaigned to promote their cause, their cause of democracy, which is for the interest of Afghanistan, our common cause to defeat military extremism — now, to see the same countries actually do not even care anymore? It is very painful.

Given the risk of speaking out, as you just said, and given the fact that you, yourself, were shot, how are you staying safe while still trying to fight?

I'm in Kabul with my two daughters ... because I just feel that my being in Kabul will help ... keep the morale high.

So I will continue to stay in Afghanistan for as long as I can. But in the meantime, I don't know what will happen tomorrow to me, because B-52 airplanes and rockets, the superpowers, NATO, nobody actually were able to defeat Taliban. Taliban are not afraid of them. But they are afraid of the women.

A lot of women like me are in Afghanistan, my sisters ... [who] shared their good times with me. I should actually be with them in these bad times. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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