The Favored Daughter Reviewed

The Favored Daughter—One woman’s fight to lead Afghanistan into the Future, by Fawzia Koofi with Nadene Ghouri, tells the important story of a courageous Afghani woman, Fawzia Koofi.  The biography starts near the time of her birth up to her election and current role Afghanistan’s first female parliament speaker, with the country’s political history always in the background. Interspersed throughout her story are letters she writes to her young daughters— messages for when she travels the country without them, aware that she may not survive her journeys.

The Favored Daughter. Image via Palgrave Macmillan.

Koofi’s “favored daughter” status stems from several occurrences during her lifetime. Initially her mother is disconcerted by her birth—she is the nineteenth daughter of a rural village leader, her mother the second of his many wives—and leaves Koofi outside, alone in the sun, for the first several hours of her life.

Her mother soon has a change of heart, though, and lovingly cares for her, perhaps most importantly in supporting her schooling in the midst of several changes in the country’s governance and her family’s own living situation. Koofi is later devastated by her mother’s death. She writes the following letter to her mother as a woman and recently-elected politician:

I still wait and hope that you will come back.  Even now my breath catches in my throat when I remember that you are not in this world.  I’m a politician now.  But sometimes I’m just a silly girl and I make mistakes…If I arrive home later than usual, I still expect you to be waiting in the yard for me with your burqa.

Koofi’s “favored” status continues as she marries the man of her and her mother’s choosing, works as an English teacher, becomes the first Afghani woman to work for UNICEF in Afghanistan, and eventually wins the support of her family to run for a seat in Afghanistan’s new parliament. She describes her own trials throughout her adult life: her husband and brother are jailed by Taliban leaders soon after her marriage, her supportive husband succumbs to tuberculosis as her role with UNICEF increases in prominence, she receives threats regularly as a female politician. Despite these challenges, she is hopeful and continues to live her life with steely resolve—the trials are a part of her life, but not ones that predominate or ones she ruminates over.

The insight from the letters she writes to her daughters—letters about love, loss, family, and childhood—are personally touching in their brevity and hope for a better future for her country.  Her wisdom and insight for her daughters in her letters goes well alongside her own biography. Here’s one example of advice for her daughters, a reminder to have faith in their dreams:

But perhaps the worst thing that can happen to any woman is to lose yourself.  To lose sense of who and what you are or to lose sight of your dreams is one of the saddest things.

The prose of the biography is easy to read (sometimes too easy, with clichés and common turns of phrase). But Koofi’s personal story is engaging and immersive, effective at illustrating the customs, habits, and physical surroundings of everyday life as they change over her lifetime and throughout Afghanistan in response to the many conflicts that have affected the country.

Koofi, here, is able to tell her own personal story on her terms, the decisions she made in her life, her sorrows and successes.  It is an important glimpse into the inner world of an Afghani woman for a Western audience unfamiliar with the historical and cultural context that surrounds these women’s lives.  Koofi deftly writes about changes in cultural customs and norms and how they affected women with nuance that is sometimes absent from commentary surrounding Afghan women’s lives. In the face of incredible loss and sadness brought on by the ever-changing political environment in Afghanistan—one that is often hostile to women’s rights—this is an inspiring and courageous story.

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