14th Mar 2012
The Favored Daughter by Fawzia Koofi
The story traces her life from her birth into a patriarchal society in Northern Afghanistan, through the death of her father, himself a prominent and respected politician and the turbulence caused by his assassination.
Always ambitious, she goes to school in Kabul during the Soviet and civil war eras but her education is cut short in 1996 with the arrival of the Taliban and she returns to her home province of Badakhshan, which is under Northern Alliance control.
Fawzia’s political awakening comes while working on a project to survey the health of the people of her region, where she meets villagers who knew and loved her father.
From this point she knows her path is to help the people of her country and this leads on to her to work for UNICEF and eventually to becoming a Speaker of the parliament in 2005.
The main body of the text is first person narrative. It is both factual and emotional. The style is neither excessively arrogant nor annoyingly modest.
She was ambitious, she worked hard, she achieved great success, she has received multiple death threats. She loved her family and her husband passionately and she grieved deeply when she lost them. These are the facts of her reality. She neither shies from them nor revels in them.
The chapters are divided by letters to her daughters to be read in the event of her death. Through these she is passing on to her daughters her values, her love of her country and of her Muslim faith, in case they have to grow up without her and without the loving family from whom Fawzia herself learned so much.
I thought initially that the divide between the main chapters and the letters to her daughters would signify the divide between her public persona and her family life. But actually there is no divide.
She feels the same powerful maternal instinct towards Afghanistan as she does towards her daughters. Throughout the book she is saying to both “You are beautiful, you are wonderful, you are capable of achieving whatever you want in life. I love you, I would die for you and I probably will”.
What comes across is the strength and determination of Afghan women as they live at the mercy of the men in power. Although to Western readers the multiple wives, regular beatings and burqas of her mother’s generation appear horrific, we get a sense that women were also accorded great respect and dignity.
From the Soviet invasion to the present day the circumstances of Afghan women have alternated between the freedom of the Soviet and post-Taliban eras and the total repression of the Taliban.
Afghan society has historically been patriarchal, but the Taliban’s vicious lack of respect and sickening violence always felt alien to Koofi and it is so sad to hear that the Western-backed president Karzai is allowing a return to those values.
It’s not an easy read. She is clearly a serious woman and the stories are harrowing, but it is well-written with the help of journalist Nadene Ghouri, and gives an insight into an inspiring woman and a remarkable country.
Recommended for: Those interested in inspirational women, history or current affairs.
Other recommended reading: Christina Lamb‘s The Sewing Circles of Herat or Waiting for Allah: Benazir Bhutto and Pakistan, Born Under a Million Shadows by Andea Busfield, or Asne Seierstad‘s The Bookseller of Kabul.