Friday, 31 January 2014

Put your hope in a hummingbird

It is with great sadness that I started writing this post.

Last week at work, I was asked to make a list of any VIPs or guests I thought should come to our three-yearly World Conference. I was thinking big. I was thinking inspiring. I was thinking of someone who has broken ground and made progress that no-one has ever made before. I went to write down the name of the person I find most inspiring in the world, and then, out of curiosity, even though I know almost everything about her already, I put her name into wikipedia. 

I’m talking about Fawzia Koofi. Don’t know the name? Well, I suppose there’s no reason for you to, unless, like me, you have an extensive interest in women’s rights activists or political figures in the Middle East. Christmas 2012 my dad bought me her autobiography. He said it might help me in my preparation for my upcoming trip to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York. That book was the first book that I’ve ever read that really touched my heart.

Fawzia Koofi was the first ever female Second Deputy Speaker of Parliament in the history of Afghanistan and was, as far as I was aware, running for the 2014 Afghan Presidency. Imagine that. In a country dominated by terrorists where girls and women experience some of the worst oppression in the world… I struggle to imagine what that even looks like. But for the last year it has filled me with excitement and hope like I cannot describe.

And that is why I write with great sadness. Because last week I found out that she is no longer a Presidential candidate.

Let me give you some context.

Fawzia Koofi was the last child of an impoverished, and already fairly large, family in a rural area of Afghanistan, born before the Taliban rule began. As a baby girl, she was rejected, and left outside in the sun to die. The family couldn’t afford another child, least of all a girl who would amount to nothing. Because that’s all girls were considered to be. Worthless. Unfortunately this is still a regular occurrence in rural parts of the Middle East and India. But let’s not dwell on that too much now.
After hours and hours and hours of desertion, when this new born baby girl was close to death, for some miraculous reason, her mother changed her mind. She defied her husband which would likely incur beatings and physiological abuse, she defied the criticisms that were sure to come from her neighbours and community and she defied what she had been taught to believe about herself, her other daughters and anyone who is ‘unlucky’ enough to be born a girl. She saved her beautiful new baby girl.

This moment has stayed with me above many others in the book. It proves everything that myself and many others I know and work with spend our lives proclaiming. If you value your daughter, if you educate her, if you believe that she will amount to more than society tells you she will – she has the potential to change the world. She will educate her daughters who will educate their daughters and suddenly you have a world where whole families are being lifted out of poverty and, most importantly, you have hope.

Just like her mother, Fawzia Koofi defied odds as she grew up. The chapters about when the Taliban rule first came into Afghanistan have opened my eyes in many ways. She affirmed for me the fact that women in Afghanistan weren’t expected to wear burkas before the Taliban came in. The Afghan people have suffered more than anyone else in the world from the Taliban, but especially Afghan women.

Since becoming involved in politics she has survived very many assassinations on her life…

I think, in my heart, I knew, and have always known, that Afghanistan is not ‘ready’ for a female President. If Fawzia was receiving countless, and regular, death threats and attempts on her life as a Speaker in Parliament, what would her chances be of surviving as President? She said herself in her book that maybe it would be best if she didn’t win.

I don’t know. It leaves a knot in my stomach. Surely we cannot bow down to the obstacles we face? Surely we should always aim for the very top? When so many girls and women out there are suffering from violence and discrimination every single day, surely the bigger our voices, the stronger we are?

But then, maybe hope doesn’t always look like we think it will.

Fawzia Koofi has inspired me in ways I can’t even describe. She’s become my role model. She has touched my life and made me believe I have the ability to change the world. She holds my hope of change in Afghanistan, and all over the world, in her hands.

So maybe it is better for her to continue as she is. Maybe she is never meant to be President because maybe, actually, this would deaden, rather than strengthen, her voice. With the weight of a whole country on her shoulders, would she still have room to fight for girls?

Maybe her progress is meant to be in smaller steps. Maybe it will take longer but maybe when she does rise up Afghanistan will be ready for her. The men who surround her in her parliament will have worked alongside her for years and have faith in her voice and leadership. They won’t feel threatened anymore. They won’t want her dead anymore. Maybe, for now, or even forever, she will influence the small people, like the father who sits next to her and sees, in her, a women’s potential for the first time. Maybe he then goes home and allows his daughter to go to school. Maybe being president is not the most powerful position she can be in.

Each and every one of us has the power to change the world, one small step at a time. Sometimes the way we can do this is not so obvious. Last week I saw a play about protesting and one of the biggest things I took away from it was that protesting is not the only way you can stand up for a cause. Maybe having a chat in the pub is more effective than standing in your town centre collecting signatures.

Real, long-lasting, sustainable change and progress is a journey. And it can be a long one. But often it needs to be if it’s going to last.
All we can do is keep fighting, in our own small ways.

Fawzia Koofi holds my hope in her hands, but so do so many other brilliant girls and women (and men!) that I am lucky to know. I see hope all around me.

Wangari Maathai tells a story of a group of animals watching their jungle burn down. They feel helpless, they don’t know what to do. They see a tiny hummingbird flying backwards and forwards dropping one small droplet of water onto the fire at a time. They tell the hummingbird that its effort is wasted, it will never be able to carry enough water to put out the fire, it should give up.
The hummingbird turns, and without stopping for even a moment, it says “I am doing the best I can.”

And now I’m not so sad anymore. Yes, being the first female president of Afghanistan would have been an amazing breakthrough, but, for now, it’s not to be. And, more importantly, I know that no matter who’s elected and no matter what happens in the future… Fawzia is never giving up. She is, just as so many of us are, doing the best she can.

"We can all be hummingbirds"

Illustration by Gary Hunt -

Helpful resources:
Wangari Maathai telling the hummingbird story much better than I ever will:
The book that touched my heart: 'The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future' - Fawzia Koofi

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