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Fawzia Koofi isn’t supposed to be alive.

She’s certainly not supposed to be running for Afghan President.

Actually, she wasn’t even supposed to survive being born. When her mother – one of her father’s seven wives – found she was pregnant again, she spent the next nine months praying fervently for a boy. Girls were considered worthless and, given that Fawzia was to be the 19th child (her father eventually had four more, taking the total to 23), she had better be a male heir.

When after 30 hours of labour a girl was born, her mother refused to hold her. She was wrapped in cloth, taken outside and left in the baking sun for 24 hours for ‘nature to take its course’ before someone finally relented and brought the infant in. Guilt kicked in and her mother went on to champion Fawzia’s cause, from fighting to send her to school – the first girl in the family to do so – to assuring Fawzia she would do something big someday.

But even her imagination would probably have stopped short of her daughter’s reality.

As a two-time MP from Badakashan province, she’s currently Vice President of the National Assembly. She’s also, at 36 years of age, single mother to two daughters, a political science graduate, a member of UNICEF and a fierce champion for women’s and human rights.

And come 2014, she’ll be asking for her country’s vote to become Afghanistan’s first female president.

The Taliban, of course, has an opinion in the matter.

She receives death threats every month and has already survived at least three assassination attempts, the last one two years ago when she was being driven from the eastern province of Jalalabad to Kabul, her daughters with her. When the firing on her convoy started from across a river, her first instinct was to duck and cover her daughters, but a few minutes into the attack, she realised the driver was veering madly, losing control of the car in panic. “I decided that if I were going to die, it was certainly not going to be because of a traffic accident,” she laughed in an interview to Britain’s Telegraph. She raised her head and leaned over the seat, trying to guide and support the driver. “I could see bullets going here and there, and bits of the road from where it was being hit being flung up onto the glass of the car. Fortunately, we eventually got to a tunnel.”

There’s no doubt she’s had more than her fair share of anguish, even by the standards of her very tormented country. Her father, an MP from the same Badakhshan province she now represents, was assassinated by the Mujahideen when she was just three. She lost several of her brothers in the many bloody battles her country has been involved in. And though she had the rare opportunity to meet and marry a man of her choice – Hamid, a lecturer at Kabul University – he was dragged to jail barely a week after their wedding to get to Fawzia’s brother, a politically active police officer in the previous government. Hamid was eventually released but by then, he’d contracted tuberculosis in jail, a disease that ultimately proved fatal.

Needing to work to support her daughters and herself, Fawzia got involved with UNICEF, venturing into the countryside and far-flung areas, working ground up to make a difference. And ironically, in the mayhem and chaos post September 11, 2001, she began to see a future for her work. In her memoir, Letters to My Daughters, she writes of a governor who urged her to remove her burkha. “We need to see you to communicate with you,” he said. It was a little moment that meant a big deal to Fawzia, who had never been to a meeting with government officials without one. Finally, she felt, she was being seen for her work and not her gender. It opened the floodgates – she convinced her large family that she would be the right choice to carry on her father’s political legacy, then decided to stand for elections.

It was a rough road to Kabul, lined with anger and hatred and smear campaigns against her; refusals to let her address rallies in mosques; attempts to subvert and stall her campaign, and still she persevered. And, unexpectedly, won. At the age of 29, she became arguably Afghanistan’s unlikeliest MP.

In the years since, she’s travelled the world, become deputy speaker of the Afghan assembly and a vociferous champion for women’s rights, won another election, spoken at the World Economic Forum and raised her daughters single-handedly. She’s mobilised funding to build schools for girls in the villages and pushed for higher education opportunities for them. She’s been sneered at for her ambitions, and respected as she achieves them.

And while it seems unlikely to both outsiders and locals that Afghanistan is ready for a female president, she’s taken the onus of convincing the country otherwise.

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