Two months after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, one of the country’s once-prominent female leaders — a former parliament member, candidate for president and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize — is visiting the United Nations, not as a representative of her government but as a woman in exile.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Fawzia Koofi called for humanitarian aid sent to Afghanistan to be contingent on the participation of women in its distribution, as well as free and safe travel for Afghans into and out of the country.
Aid “should not be politicized. … Women should be involved in every stage of it and they should be listened to. Women should not be only the recipients,” said Koofi, part of a delegation of Afghan women visiting the U.N. to urge member states not to compromise on inclusion and equal rights in Afghanistan.
Since fleeing Kabul in August, Koofi has been living in hotel rooms in Europe. She described the pain of separation from her country, of two decades of hopes dashed and of searching for permanent residence for herself and her two daughters.
“This is not an Afghanistan I fought for,” she told the AP. “The Afghanistan that I was hoping for was [that] women should not suffer as much as I suffered during my childhood, during the time that I was a teenager, when [the] Taliban took over.”
“I wanted other girls to enjoy at least the freedom of choosing which school they should go. But now, their choice is limited to which room in their houses they should spend [their time in] during the day. This is heartbreaking.”
Koofi, a former deputy speaker of parliament, was one of only four women in talks to reach a power-sharing deal with the Taliban, which ultimately failed. She described watching the Taliban’s commitment to negotiations change after they signed a peace agreement with the United States in February 2020.
“After they signed the agreement, they were more extreme and they were more into buying time, preferring a military strategy,” she said.
Taliban fighters pursued that strategy in the summer, seizing province after province until they reached Kabul in August. When then-President Ashraf Ghani fled, the Taliban entered the capital, sparking panic among many who had opposed their rule and feared for their lives and futures.
That was the fatal blow to reaching a political settlement many had hoped would cement the gains women had achieved in access to education, work, and the legal system, Koofi said.
She also blamed “world leaders,” seeming to point a finger at U.S. President Joe Biden. “As a superpower, the United States has a major responsibility and should be held accountable,” she said.
When he announced withdrawal plans, Biden said he was bound by the timetable set by the Trump administration and that the U.S. could not continue to extend the military presence in Afghanistan and expect a different result.
Still, Koofi said she thinks the breakdown of peace talks and the Taliban takeover could have been avoided. Pausing as tears ran down her face, she said: “I mean, every day we are actually dealing with this trauma.”
Her former female colleagues in parliament, female judges who used to sentence people affiliated with the Taliban, and some journalists who spoke out against the group are now fearful, she said.
The Taliban must also be held accountable, she added, for their pledges that women would be able to go to school and work “within the principles of Islam.”
Each day, Koofi said she gets hundreds of text and voice messages largely from women still in Afghanistan, hoping she can help them.
“They’re very angry … that I am not with them at these difficult times,” she said. “The women, especially, they keep sending me messages expressing their anger that, you know, ‘We need you to be here with us in the streets of Kabul,’ and they are right.”
Women she used to work with and who were the breadwinners in their families send her photos of themselves as reminders.
“Psychologically to process this and to be able to adjust and accept, it’s not been easy,” she said. “Not only for me, for every woman and man that I have met in the last two months after I left Kabul.”
For now, Koofi is focused on resolving residency status for herself and her daughters, ages 22 and 23. For security reasons, she declined to say where.
Some 100,000 Afghans have fled the country since the Taliban took power, though many were unable to leave in the final chaotic airlifts. The 38 million Afghans who remain are facing “universal poverty” within a year, the U.N. development agency said in September.
Koofi also warned of the threat from the Islamic State group in Afghanistan — known by its Arabic acronym Daesh — and called for renewed political negotiations because, she said, stability does not just come from the cessation of violence, but strong and inclusive institutions.
“If we think that one military extremist group, which is Taliban, is going to defeat Daesh — it’s not going to work that way,” she said.
“You need to continue to empower the nation, empower the people, educate them, support the political process.”