I‘m writing this edition of News in Asia from the good old U.S. of A. – Denver to be exact. This week, I want to feature two prominent female leaders in Asia: Fawzia Koofi and Park Geun-hye. Fawzia Koofi is a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament and Vice-President of the National Assembly who is running for president in 2014 and Park Geun-hye was recently inaugurated as South Korea’s first female president. The pair have some things in common despite being born into widely different circumstances. Both women had fathers who were prominent leaders in their respective governments before being killed by political foes. Koofi’s father was a member of Parliament for 25 years before being killed by the Mujahideen and Park’s father was a founder of modern Korea who took power during a coup d’etat and ruled as a dictator for almost two decades before he was assassinated. It’s also worthy to note that these women are breaking through boundaries in traditionally patriarchal societies.
Koofi was born in 1975 or 1976 (most Afghanis do not know their exact birth date) into a polygamous family. Her remarkable life is made even more remarkable in that her life could have ended soon after birth like those of so many Afghani girls. Her mother had hoped so much for a son and was so disappointed in giving birth to a daughter that she was left outside in the sun to die. In an interview with The Daily Show, Koofi explained that her mother was afraid of the struggle she would endure as a woman. Her parents changed their minds in time and rescued her, but Koofi continued to have to fight for the right to an education and a life, which she details in her book, The Favored Daughter. Like so many women in Afghanistan, her male relatives were against her going to school, but she was able to convince her parents to let her receive an education. She became the only educated woman in her family and went on to study Business and Management at Preston University in Pakistan.
Koofi worked with UNICEF and has fought for the rights of Internally Displaced People (IDP) and other vulnerable groups. She also served as a child protection officer and was elected to the parliament in 2005. Throughout her political career, Koofi’s main focus has been women’s rights, especially the education of girls and the improvement of the living conditions for all women, even those in prison. As per usual, being an awesome leader and fighting for the rights of women in her country has made her a prime target for the Taliban. She’s survived several assassination attempts and lives with the realization that she can be killed at any time; she has goodbye letters written to her two teenage daughters in the event that she is killed.
In a piece for The Daily Beast, Koofi talks about her commitment to freeing her country of the violent and oppressive hold of the Taliban and questions the inclusion of the organization in peace talks:
…it was revealed that the Taliban are seeking to open a political office in the gulf state of Qatar, widely seen as precursor to further “peace talks” aimed at bringing the Taliban back into the mainstream political arena. I am one of several voices within Afghanistan questioning this approach as the best route to peace…Can anyone really believe the Taliban will share power and be willing to sit in a democratic Parliament alongside a woman?
In every interview I’ve seen with Koofi, she has come across as intelligent, passionate and, most of all, brave. Her willingness to defy the Taliban’s targeted campaign against women is admirable, especially in light of the fact that it will likely lead to her death.
South Korea’s first woman president faced some really tough challenges before she was even inaugurated. North Korea decided to ramp up their nuclear program with missile testing and general saber rattling. She’s also taking over when the South Korean economy is shaky and youth unemployment is high, a situation similar to President Obama’s first term. Park is a controversial figure in Korea itself. The presidential election was a tight race and she goes into office with less than 50% approval rating among South Koreans.
The controversy surrounding Park is mainly due to her background and lifestyle. She has never been able to completely shake the legacy of her father, President Park Chung-hee who ruled Korea for over two decades. Park’s father has been credited with spurring on the country’s astonishing economic growth, but was vilified for crushing dissent and human rights violations. She has been in the political spotlight for most of her life. A bullet meant for her father killed her mother when she was 22 and she was required to take on the duties of the First Lady and then later when her father was assassinated at the hands of his security chief. While Park has publicly apologized for the human rights violations committed by her father’s regime, she has refused to apologize for the policies her father put in place to spur economic growth. Her reluctance to fully apologize for her father’s actions alienated many young voters. She was criticized for using an iPad during the presidential debate and she’s also been accused of using South Korea’s intelligence agency to influence the campaign. In fact, it was the older demographic that eventually elevated Park to the office of president as she’s seen as holding more traditional values. Those traditional values are warping and changing as Westernization becomes a powerful force in youth culture and the older generation is being left behind.
Despite the controversy surrounding her, a woman ascending to the presidency is still quite a feat in the traditional patriarchal society. She is unmarried in a culture that elevates the family above all else and where women still play a more subservient role. Park’s family background is perceived as counting in her favor in this arena. Though she’s seen as a hardliner, her approach to North Korea is considerably softer than her predecessors. She’s willing to make concessions if North Korea is willing to curtail its nuclear program, though she stated in her inauguration address:
I will not tolerate any action that threatens the lives of our people and the security of our nation. I urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions without delay and embark on the path to peace and shared development.
Park is also hoping to implement a “creative” economic plan that is less dependent on the major Korean conglomerates. It will be interesting to see if Park can implement the promises of her campaign and overcome the controversies that come with her.