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Shooting fails to deter Afghan woman on Taliban talks team

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Afghan women’s rights advocate Fawzia Koofi had nightmares for days after a volley of bullets was fired at her car as she travelled with her daughter in the restive province of Parwan.

Just two weeks later and with her arm still in a cast, Koofi, one of the few female members of the Afghan team negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, is planning to return to the area, where floods have killed more than 150 people.

It is a sign of the determination of a woman who has survived two apparent assassination attempts to keep fighting for a more equal, just and stable future for her country after decades of war.

“It was a narrow escape,” said Koofi of the Aug. 14 attack. “All the way to hospital (my daughter) held my bleeding arm tight and kept telling me not to close my eyes,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at her now fortified home.

The Taliban has denied responsibility for the attack, which came as the Afghan government prepared for talks with the Taliban following a U.S. peace deal with the militants signed in February.

Many Afghan women worry the deal does not safeguard their rights, and fear that a U.S. troop withdrawal and the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghan politics could destroy their hard-won gains, from education to freedom of movement.

Koofi, a former lawmaker, believes the role of female negotiators in the talks with a group that once banished women from public life is key.

“At previous meetings with the Taliban ... even if we (Afghan women) do not speak, our presence indicates we stand for independence, equality and women’s rights”, she said.

Talks with the Taliban were to have begun this month in Qatar, but on Thursday Kabul’s top negotiator said they would be put back to September after disagreements delayed a planned prisoner swap.

The Taliban enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law that included public lashings, flogging and stonings.

Under their rule from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women were obliged to cover their faces and could not study, work or leave the house without a male relative.

The group has said it would allow women to be educated and employed, but within the limits of Islamic law and Afghan culture.

‘I WOULD NEVER STOP’

This month’s attack was not the first time Koofi has been targetted. In 2010, the Taliban attacked her convoy after she became Afghanistan’s first female deputy speaker of parliament, firing bullets from a mountain top.

“But this time, someone getting so close to me, knowingly trying to kill me was much different,” she said.

Human rights group Amnesty International said there had been an “extremely worrying” rise in attacks on film actors, political activists and human rights defenders in Afghanistan in recent months.

On Wednesday, three gunmen in Kabul opened fire on the vehicle of prominent female Afghan film director, actress and police officer Saba Sahar, leaving her with four bullets in the stomach. The 44-year-old is also a critic of the Taliban.

Koofi said she planned to soon travel to Parwan to extend her support to thousands of people affected by recent flash floods.

“I would have to be more careful, plan twice before any trip. I have increased my security and I plan to carry on. I would never stop”, she said.

“I would not be me if I stopped reaching out to people.”

Reporting by Shadi Khan Saif, Writing by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org

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