Preparations for the 2014 presidential elections are under way in Afghanistan, and this campaign appears likely to be markedly different from preceding contests. Fawzia Koofi, 35, announced her candidacy in May and is campaigning across the country in hopes of becoming its first female president.
Koofi, representing Badakhshan Province, is serving her second term in the Afghan House of Representatives and heads the Women's Affairs Commission in parliament.
“The country needs leaders who are close to the people and are familiar with today's political challenges,” Koofi told Central Asia Online in an exclusive interview.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is seen by the world as “encouragement for terrorism,” she said, explaining that, through her candidacy, she hopes to show to the world that, “Although fundamentalism has increased, the willingness to change has also increased at the same rate in Afghanistan.”
She hopes to win the popular vote in the upcoming presidential election by appealing to young voters, who make up 50-60% of the country's population, she said.
“They welcome and embrace change and transformation,” she said.
In addition to the presidential elections, the country is expected to face another major challenge in 2014 – the transition of security responsibilities from the international forces to the Afghan forces.
Koofi said she expects security threats to be one of the biggest challenges during her presidential campaign. She also expressed concern that security issues could very well affect the 2014 democratic process as a whole.
Koofi said she believes that she is already a well-known candidate and that voters are well aware of her stances and positions. This, according to Koofi, is what makes her confident that she'll be a front-runner in the upcoming election.
When asked, most Afghans generally welcome the participation of women in the upcoming presidential elections.
The country's next leader “should be a woman,” a Kabul resident named Fariba said. “Afghanistan has always been led by men,” she told Central Asia Online, adding that “people want change.”
She intends to vote for a woman to become the next president, she said. Another resident expressed doubts that the country is ready for a woman to lead the country.
Leading Afghanistan would not be easy for a woman, Rahmatullah said.
“Afghanistan has a traditional society, and there is a possibility that a large number of adults, who are accustomed to the traditional leadership, would not welcome the candidacy of a woman,” he said.
Though many Afghans' views on women's involvement in social and political activities have changed dramatically in the past 10 years, opposition exists.
Koofi said she accepts the inevitability of opposition to her candidacy by some extremist mullahs and other groups but contended that such a viewpoint is not unanimous among religious scholars.
Considering that she received most of her 2010 parliamentary election votes from women and young voters, Koofi is counting on them in her campaign for president. She holds close relationships with women and youth organisations, from which she derives her political strength.
Another challenge is whether voters will turn out. Besides the security factor, voters need the assurance of a transparent, fraud-thwarting election law and an honest election commission, said Abdul Kabir Ranjbar, a Kabul University instructor and former MP. Otherwise, they won't bother to vote, he warned.
Koofi said she also plans to travel to various parts of the country to campaign. Lack of security won't stop her from doing so, she said, even though in some provinces the security situation is unfavourable.
Other woman candidates have run without winning many votes, she acknowledged, a reference to Masooda Jalal (2004) and Shala Afa and Frozan Fana (2009).
Only the future will show whether Afghan society is ready to entrust a woman with presidential responsibilities, she said.