Fawzia Koofi (AFGHANISTAN) IS THE WINNER OF THE 2021 RAW in WAR ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA AWARD for women human rights defenders working in war and conflict

Today, Thursday 7th October, RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in WAR) celebrates the courage of Afghan human rights defender, Fawzia Koofi, whose commitment to women’s rights, gender equality, girls’ right to education and ending violence and conflict in Afghanistan, has made her a target by those who want to rule Afghanistan by the force of the gun.

On the 15th anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder today, RAW in WAR honours Fawzia Koofi with the 2021 Anna Politkovskaya Award for her courage and determination in standing up for peace and human rights in Afghanistan in the face of grave danger, just like Anna did.

Fawzia, 46, is a renowned human rights, and women’s rights defender, peace negotiator, former member of the Afghan Parliament and its first-ever female Deputy Speaker.  She remained in Afghanistan, with heavily-armed Taliban fighters stationed outside her home in Kabul, until 30 August 2021, the day the last US forces left Afghanistan.  A long-standing, outspoken critic of the Taliban, over the years she has received numerous death threats and survived two assassination attempts, the first in 2010, claimed by the Taliban, the second in August 2020, when unknown gunmen ambushed her car and a bullet shattered a bone in her right arm.  

Even after the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul on 16 August, Fawzia gave numerous outspoken interviews to the international media and regularly updated her social media pages, drawing attention to human rights abuses by the Taliban, the situation of the internally displaced, and to her grave concern for the future of the people of Afghanistan under the Taliban, in particular women and activists.  She emphasized the vital need for women to be included in discussions between the Taliban and Afghan political figures regarding any power-sharing deal, and for them to be able to participate meaningfully in the eventual power structure.  She was also highly critical of the manner of the Western powers’ withdrawal from the country.

In the weeks before her departure from Afghanistan she stated that: “I will continue. I will continue to resist, I will continue to struggle, I will continue to raise my voice.  I will continue to protect the rights and the voice of people” and that, if she eventually felt forced to leave, she would stay somewhere very close, so I can come and go and support my people.”  On arrival in Qatar on 31 August she declared: “I’m going to go back. I will continue to campaign for, to stand up for women.”

Upon Fawzia Koofi receiving the 2021 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Channel 4 News International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum, who has met and interviewed her in Afghanistan, said:

“There could be no more worthy winner of the Anna Politkovskaya Award than Fawzia Koofi – a woman who was shot by the Taliban, but nonetheless agreed to sit down and negotiate with them. She embodies both the courage of Afghan women and their desire to talk not fight. As the Taliban continue to bar girls from secondary school, and women from work, this award stands as evidence that women across the world will continue to stand up for the rights of Afghan women and girls.”

The day Fawzia was born, was the day she was supposed to die. As an unwanted newborn girl, the 19th of 23 children, Fawzia was left out in the sun to die but her mother, one of seven wives, later rescued her, in response to her cries of distress. Her mother repented, Fawzia survived, not only that first day of her life, but also the brutality and violence that followed. In the rugged terrain of the northern province of Badakhshan where she grew up, she watched her father beat her mother. After Mujahideen killed her father (a member of the then Afghan parliament), and threatened to assassinate the entire family, she fled with her mother, eventually to Kabul.  She became the first girl in her family to attend school, receiving her early education during the years of the Soviet-Afghan conflict (1979 -1989).

She was forced to leave her university medical studies after the Taliban came to power in 1995 and barred women from access to education and employment.   (In later years, she gained a Bachelor’s degree in law and political science and a Master’s degree in international relations and human rights). Under the Taliban regime she established a clandestine home school for girls deprived of education.  During that regime, close family members were killed and her husband died as a result of TB contracted during his time in a Taliban prison, leaving her widowed with two small daughters. 

One of the first female Members of Parliament in Afghanistan, Fawzia Koofi was elected as a representative of Badakhshan province in 2005. She was also the first woman to be elected as Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament in the history of Afghanistan and became Chair of the Women, Human Rights and Civil Society Commission. The movement which she started, Movement of Change for Afghanistan, campaigning for human and civil rights, was registered as a political party in December 2019 and Fawzia became the country’s first ever female leader of a political party.

On receiving the 2021 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Fawzia Koofi said:

Thank you so much for considering me for the Anna Politkovskaya Award. I think in these challenging times, when women of Afghanistan are facing oppression, it is important that, collectively, we continue to speak for them and represent their voice. 

Sometimes, when we speak the truth, or we fight to be the voice for the voiceless, we might feel like our voice is not making an impact or bringing about any change, However, we see that the level of opposition to what we do, even to the extent of our opponents wanting to silence our voice by trying to kill us, makes us focus and continue what we do, as somewhere, someday, justice will prevail and we might have had a role in it.

It is a hard fight and it can get lonely at times, but to climb rocky mountains and paving the way for others to follow your footsteps is more difficult than walking on a flat, asphalted road. No matter where we are in the world, our paths cross, over the values that we stand for, and over every step we take to remove hurdles from our way, whether for gender equity, fighting patriarchy or seeking truth & justice. There are days that I feel like giving up, as it feels as if the challenges are more than my abilities to overcome them but there are two things that keep me going.  

1: People like Anna Politkovskaya who sacrificed their lives for their values.

2: The values that I believe in – they have been part of my identity.” 

The Afghan government was excluded from lengthy US-Taliban negotiations which ended with a deal signed in February 2020, which put a date on the withdrawal of all international forces from Afghanistan.  In the lead up to the deal, informal talks about a way forward to eventual peace in Afghanistan took place between the Taliban and a pan-Afghan delegation. Fawzia was one of only two women included in the overwhelmingly male-dominated team engaged in these discussions in 2019. She confronted the Taliban about women’s rights and argued more women should be included in the peace process.  She subsequently became one of only four women in the 21-member team of prominent Afghans included in official talks, resulting from the February deal, on an eventual political power-sharing settlement with the Taliban. These opened in Qatar in September 2020, where Fawzia participated in one of the rounds of talks with her right arm in a cast, due to the gunshot wound suffered during the assassination attempt which had taken place only weeks before.

In the months leading up to the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul she visited makeshift camps emerging in various provincial capitals and Kabul, where thousands of people fled after being displaced by the Taliban’s military advance across the country. She fundraised for, and helped distribute emergency aid. She gave interviews to the international media, drawing attention to the plight of women and families in desperate need of food, water and tents. She denounced the reported human rights abuses by the Taliban in the areas they controlled.  She recognized that in some places their takeover was due more to weak and corrupt government leadership than to their own strength.  She called on the international community to use their political leverage to stop the Taliban taking over Afghanistan militarily, to speed up peace negotiations and to agree on a political power-sharing deal.

When the Taliban entered Kabul, Fawzia’s head of security received a threatening phone call. Two groups of heavily-armed Taliban later arrived at her house and argued with each other about entering and searching it. Eventually they did not force entry but left armed fighters at the gate so that Fawzia was under close surveillance, under a form of house arrest, until her departure from the country on one of the very last flights out of Kabul.

The bravery of Fawzia Koofi has been recognized by media and human rights advocates around the world. The RAW in WAR Nominations Committee for the 2021 Anna Politkovskaya Award joins in expressing its high appreciation of her courageous work, carried out despite the daily risks she has been facing, and against the backdrop of the deafening silence of the international community to act to end the violence in Afghanistan.

On announcing the winner of the 2021 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Belarusian writer and Nobel Prize laureate, Svetlana Alexievich, 2018 Award winner and a member of the 2021 Award Nominations Committee, said:

I’m looking at a picture of Fawzia Koofi… Today she will be receiving the Anna Politkovskaya Award.

The last time Anna and I met in Oslo, shortly before her death, we sat down for five minutes to have a cup of coffee and ended up talking for two hours about wars: she talked about her trips to Chechnya and I talked about Afghanistan. In both wars we were particularly struck by women.

I remembered that in Anna’s stories Chechen women were always beautiful. While in my mind I can always see the beauty of Afghan women amidst the chaos of war and bare hot sand. I do not remember any tears on their faces, but they always wore black. Later I realised: there were so many tears that they turned their robes black.

It’s been fifteen years now that Anna is gone. I wonder – if we met today, what would we talk about? I know that whatever the circumstances, we would sit down for a cup of coffee and once again talk about wars – about the war in Ukraine, the war in Syria… in Afghanistan… About the revolutions in Belarus and Myanmar that are turning more and more into wars…

We would talk about the fact that today’s wars and revolutions have a woman’s face/a womanly face ….”

RAW in WAR has been moved by the courage and determination of the women journalists of Rukhshana Media in Afghanistan and wishes to pay special tribute to them as Brave Voices Refusing to be Silenced. Rukhshana Media is a network of young Afghan women journalists – most in their early 20s – set up by 28-year-old Zahra Joya in late 2020. The name Rukhshana itself was chosen to commemorate a young 15-year-old girl who was stoned to death in 2015 for having tried to flee a forced marriage.  Zahra Joya herself was able to start school under the Taliban only because she dressed up as a boy and called herself Mohammed. When the Taliban regime ended in 2001 she still faced obstacles but was able to attend school as a girl and study further, starting work in journalism in 2014.

Rukhshana’s initial group of half a dozen women journalists based in various provinces of Afghanistan expanded and during 2021 their platform published stories on issues such as rape, forced marriage, domestic violence, gender-discrimination and corruption. Rukhshana was openly critical of the Taliban and reported on their killings and attacks on women in public life.  Such reports led to death threats and intimidation. Zahra Joya herself reported receiving anonymous threats from suspected Taliban fighters. With the advance of the Taliban across the country during 2021 and their eventual political takeover in August, Rukhshana’s journalists and all Afghan journalists, especially women, faced increasing and severe risks to their safety.

On 3 September, a group of UN experts said that “Journalists and media workers, in particular women”, were facing heightened risks since the Taliban’s political takeover. They noted a sharp increase in “reports of targeted killings of journalists and their family members, home raids, threats and intimidation in areas controlled by the Taliban” and pointed out that this was in a context where Afghanistan “is already considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists”, especially for women journalists.

Some of Rukhshana’s journalists have been forced into hiding, some are writing under a pseudonym, some have fled the country. Zahra Joya herself fled Afghanistan in the first week of September 2021. In her final days in Afghanistan, having heard that the Taliban had come looking for her, she went into hiding.  She is currently in the UK but continues to cooperate with her network of women journalists and to publish their work on Rukhshana Media.

RAW in WAR also wishes to pay tribute to the “astonishing” bravery of Women Human Rights Defenders in Myanmar as Brave Voices Refusing to be Silenced.

Since the coup staged by Myanmar’s military junta in February 2021, there have been reports of extreme, widespread and systematic human rights abuses against Myanmar’s people, some of them amounting to crimes against humanity or war crimes.  Over a thousand people have been killed since the coup, including scores of children.  UN bodies monitoring events in the country have described the military’s regime as a “reign of terror” and the situation as “a multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe.”

The catalogue of reported human rights abuses committed by the security forces include: attacks by security forces against civilians in the context of peaceful street protests, with reports of them opening fire without warning against protestors, shooting people running away or helping the injured.  The attacks have evolved into systemic and targeted killings of protestors. Over 8,000 human rights defenders, activists, media workers, medical workers, artists, political opponents and critics of the regime have been arbitrarily arrested – for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. There are multiple reports of enforced disappearances. Brutal torture, including rape, of detainees, and the deaths of at least 120 people in custody have been reported.

Against this background, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders and on the situation of human rights in Myanmar have expressed utmost concern about the situation of human rights defenders. They noted that women have played a leading role in the protest and civil disobedience movement since the coup and expressed particular concern for the situation of women human rights defenders who, they noted, could face torture and sexual violence in prison, with no medical care provided.

RAW in WAR wishes to highlight their finding that the women human rights defenders come from different ethnic groups in various areas of the country and that “Their bravery in continuing to speak out against the human rights violations being perpetrated by the military against the country’s population, coming as it does in the face of threats of gender-based violence and massive risks for their safety, is astonishing.” 

On receiving the Anna Politkovskaya Award, Fawzia Koofi will join a group of remarkable women human rights defenders who received the Anna Politkovskaya Award in the past, including Radhya Almutawakel (2020), Alex Crawford (2019), Binalakshmi Nepram (2018) and Svetlana Alexievich (2018), Gulalai Ismail (2017) and Gauri Lankesh (2017), Jineth Bedoya Lima (2016) and Valentina Cherevatenko (2016), Kholoud Waleed (2015), Vian Dakhil (2014), Malala Yousafzai (2013), Marie Colvin (2012), Razan Zaitouneh (2011), Dr. Halima Bashir (2010), Leila Alikarami on behalf of the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality in Iran (2009), Malalai Joya (2008) and Natalia Estemirova (2007).

The award will be presented to the winner in March 2022 in London at RAW in WAR’s ‘Refusing to be Silenced’ event, part of the 2022 Women of the World (WOW) Festival.