KABUL Condemned to die shortly after birth for being a girl, outspoken Afghan member of parliament Fawzia Koofi lived to become a champion of women's rights and is now eyeing the presidency in 2014.
The 36-year-old expects harsh opposition, threats of violence and pressure against her family as her campaign gets underway to replace Hamid Karzai, who must step down that year after serving the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.
"I am sure my campaign will be the noisiest. I will have lots of troubles against me," the politician from the country's remote northeastern Badakhshan province told Reuters in an interview this week.
Koofi is the first person to declare an intention to run in the election, which is becoming increasingly fraught with confusion and uncertainty in the run-up to the withdrawal of foreign combat troops by the end of 2014.
Her bid would appear a long shot. Most ordinary Afghans in the ultra-conservative, deeply Muslim country do not take the idea of a female leader too seriously but Koofi is undeterred.
"It's very easy to terrorize a woman in Afghanistan. It's very easy to create accusations against a woman, and then her political life will be finished," Koofi said in her lavishly decorated palatial home, adorned with masses of gold colored curtains.
She has surprised her male counterparts in the past, first as a member of parliament and later by becoming its first female deputy speaker, victories which brought a near-death attack from the Taliban and threats on her life from the Haqqani militant network allied with the Taliban.
She was first elected to parliament in 2005, one of almost 90 women of 240 members. She won a seat again in 2010.
The nineteenth of her polygamous father's 23 children, she also astonished her family by becoming the first girl to get an education, which she achieved by begging her brothers to allow her to attend school.
Her memoir, "The Favoured Daughter", interwoven with letters to her two daughters written before each political trip with the fear of death on her mind, was published in February in several languages to rave reviews.
Speaking animatedly and quickly in fluent English, Koofi says she will also face opposition from the Karzai administration, which she blames for a legion of problems, including endemic corruption, violence and weak rule of law.
Her campaign will target those head on.
"The basic thing that people in Afghanistan need is a responsible, accountable, good government," she said adjusting her translucent orange headscarf.
Koofi wants Afghanistan to stop relying on foreign aid, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the budget, and become financially independent, with enforced rules to control its resources, in particular its mineral wealth which she likened to "billions of dollars underground".
"Unfortunately right now the income from mines goes into a few pockets. If you provide people with jobs you are certainly contributing to reducing security risks," she said, explaining that few unemployed would bother join the Taliban insurgency if they had good jobs.
An indomitable campaigner for girls' education after the ouster of the Taliban a decade ago, she will continue her battle for women's rights in the country of 30 million which ranked in a poll last year as the worst place on earth to be a woman.
LOSING THE WOMEN'S VOTE
Karzai said this week he was considering calling elections a year early to avoid overlapping with the drawdown of U.S.-led NATO forces by end-2014, though analysts were quick to point out the difficulty in doing so legally.
Koofi said Karzai could postpone the elections under electoral laws, blaming poor security, to maintain a grip on power amid waning public support.
He has certainly lost women's votes, Koofi said, as he had become out of touch with their needs and their rights were no longer a priority for him.
"He has lost the trust of this part of society - women, the civil movements, the activists, the Afghan youth and the intellectuals. That is why he is trying to now rely on conservative forces," she said.
Concern is mounting among some Western officials, activists and women MPs such as Koofi, that women's rights could be compromised under any power-sharing deal between the government and the Taliban, which Karzai has been seeking to end the war.
Activists were outraged last month when Karzai appeared to back recommendations from his powerful clerics, the Ulema Council, to segregate the sexes and allow husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances, reminiscent of Taliban rule
The Islamist group banned women from most work, education and the right to vote during their 1996-2001 rule, laws which halted Koofi's medical studies following her bachelor degree in law and political science.
And there other indications that Karzai and his government, by extending an olive branch to the Taliban, have started to clamp down on political rights.
Speculation circulating among politicians is that by bringing the election forward, Karzai could establish what Koofi called a "Putin model".
Russia's Vladimir Putin stepped down from the presidency in 2008 after serving two consecutive terms, becoming prime minister and handing the reins to his junior partner. Dmitry Medvedev. Putin was re-elected president in March.
"By being the number two he will have all the authority to have the same team, basically," she said of Karzai.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Rob Taylor and Robert Birsel)