Zarifa Ghafari risked her life as mayor of Afghanistan

Zarifa Ghafari became the mayor of a conservative city in Afghanistan at the age of 26. She was not interested in the Taliban. She now lives in Germany and has written her story into a book.

Fernande from Tates

Zarifa Ghafari’s passion for Afghanistan is evident in every sentence she speaks. She is only 30 years old, and during those three decades has witnessed the rise, fall and resurgence of the Taliban. At 26, she became the country’s youngest mayor, a decision that cost her several assassination attempts.

Now her wonderful life story is being recorded in the book cutewhich she co-wrote with British journalist Hana Lucinda Smith. Its mission is to give a voice to women in Afghanistan. “I speak for women, especially in rural areas, who have never been heard of,” she says.

Ghafari is angry. She toured Europe for several days with her book, which has already been translated into seven languages. You are also visiting Amsterdam. The news is dominated by protests in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini. But Afghanistan is being forgotten. “How much is the media talking about the tears of girls in Afghanistan who can’t go to school? They haven’t gone to school in over a year… Why is girls’ schools in Afghanistan no less important than the headscarf in Iran?”

forgotten by the west

Her book stems from frustration that the West has forgotten her country, Ghafari says. Precisely because of the countries that played such a major role in the modern history of their country. “What happened to me is because of you,” she said indignantly. But you forgot Afghanistan. That’s why I wrote this book.”

Ghafari grew up in Kabul. She was only four years old when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Despite the ban on girls’ education, she secretly went to school in a basement. After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, I officially went to school. In her girls’ school, American soldiers passed by her and distributed sweets.

After studying in India, she returned to her homeland and decided to work for women’s rights. Although more and more girls go to school in Kabul, the situation was different outside the capital. She established a radio station in Wardak, the conservative province bordering Kabul.

Hide and call at home

Everyone in Afghanistan has a radio. I know that women are less likely to speak up. But on the radio you can call under a pseudonym and share your story. You can hide in the house and make phone calls.” This was the first time they heard female voices on the radio in the county. They shared their frustrations and dreams. “I learned so much about my community.”

Ghafari grew up under the oppressive regime of the Taliban, but has managed to develop into a champion of women’s rights.Patrick Post’s photo

The stories she heard inspired her to step forward in 2018 as the mayor of Maidan Shahr, the capital of Wardak Province. She was only 26 years old. After being selected as a suitable candidate, there was tremendous resistance locally. I was independent, wouldn’t listen to anyone, and wanted to enforce the law. And people knew it could cost money, and there was a lot of corruption in the municipality,” explains the resistance herself. For nine months, the men fought against her appointment. In the end, she threatened to set herself on fire if her candidacy was not official. After the Afghan president intervened, She was still able to work.

She immediately began fighting corruption in her city. Sellers in the market had to register with the municipality and pay taxes, and illegal buildings were demolished. “It was difficult to fight corruption, but it was not impossible.” Confirm that she did not accept bribes.

Al-Qaws conservative province

While in office, she achieved national fame. She was one of the few women to hold the position of mayor, and the only one in a highly conservative province where the Taliban was strong. “They were controlling more than half of the county when I was hired,” she says.

Ghafari has short black hair and wears a light blue shirt and black pants. Her ankle boots hide her burnt feet – the result of the first assassination attempt when a gas cylinder in her home was opened, causing severe burns.

“I had many enemies, but the attacks were carried out by the Taliban,” she says firmly. However, she refused to give up her job, after all three attacks, she simply returned to the office. “Everyone dies someday. If you die in bed, your family will mourn for you. But when you die on the battlefield, fighting for a cause that means so much to your country, you become a part of history,” she says enthusiastically.

She thought it was important to show the Taliban that she was not afraid. Most people pack their bags and run when they receive a letter from the Taliban. This gave the Taliban the power and the feeling that they could make anything. To confront them it is important to say: I am not afraid of you. The only way you can stop me is to kill me.”

A documentary about her life

It’s raining awards for Ghaffari’s bravery. Ranked by the BBC as one of the world’s 100 most inspiring and influential women in 2019, she was awarded the International Women of Courage Award by the US State Department. A documentary about her life will be shown on Netflix at the end of next month, produced by Hillary Clinton.

She hopes this kind of attention will contribute to change. I’ve been traveling for years and giving speeches, but only a small community hears them. I’ve been talking to politicians for decades, they are deaf. But it is important for people to learn about our pain, our losses, and our successes. They need to know that women don’t give up and stand strong.”

As the Taliban advanced, Ghafari was transferred to the Ministry of Defense in Kabul in the spring of 2021. When the Taliban stood at the gates of Kabul in August 2021, she did not want to believe it. She thought she could stay in Afghanistan, but eventually decided to flee. “I did not leave for myself. As a human being I have responsibilities towards my family. Especially after my father was killed.” Shot dead in late 2020, Zarifa believes the Taliban killed him in revenge for her work. “This is the first time in my life that I have prioritized my family; my mother, my brothers and my sisters rather than my work for my country.

Asylum in Germany

This was followed by a chaotic trip to the airport. Thousands of people tried to leave the country. Fearing that the Taliban would stop her, she pressed the floor of the car. In the end she was able to get to the airport with her family. They were evacuated and granted asylum in Germany. “It was an emotional rollercoaster for everyone who escaped. I am lucky to be able to bring my family with me.”

She has been following the news in Afghanistan closely ever since. The problems are many. “Millions of children cannot go to school, it is better to call the education minister the minister who fights education,” she quipped. “Everything is difficult, not only women’s rights, but also the millions of women who are unable to work, people dying from starvation, health care, a humanitarian crisis, a food crisis,” she sums up.

She is in constant contact with Kabul, where the organization she founded is still active. She helps widows with food parcels but also education – her passion. “If you give a woman a packet of food, you give her food for a month. But if you give that woman practical education and training, she can feed herself for the rest of her life.

Social Media Criticism

Ghafari decided to return to Kabul in February 2022. Before boarding the plane, she consulted with the Taliban to ensure her safety. She faced a storm of criticism on social media; It will legitimize the Taliban. This criticism doesn’t do much for her. People who criticize me are sitting in a cafe in Europe. Easy to criticize. But I’m not afraid. I went there, risked my life. I was there to help people, help women, talk to them, connect them to the outside world, and give them a voice.”

She visited women in small villages, for example, and appealed to village elders to educate their daughters. She gave interviews to local media in which she called on the Taliban to release female prisoners.

Felt like at home again. “I risked my life when not many people dared. But I had the opportunity to go to my father’s grave. To hug my grandmother. To see Maidan Shahr, the city where I was a mayor. The moment I got off the plane, and the Kabul sun touched my skin, I was so happy. I took a deep breath and thought: If you die here, it’s okay too.”

Not welcome in Germany

She finds it difficult to get used to her new life in Germany. “I often stay home all day, and don’t go out, so I can try to ignore where I am,” she says. “In the past, when I had to leave Afghanistan, it was always a nice thing, I would go shopping and travel. But now I am already in Europe and I don’t have that feeling anymore.” She does not feel welcome in Germany. “I feel sad when I go out. I prefer staying indoors, in my bed. It doesn’t feel like home at all.” “But my family is doing well, and I’m very happy for them.”

When the photographer comes, she wears a colorful Afghani jacket, with her head scarf draped over her hair. She misses Kabul, and the country in which she has already risked so much. She wants to come back, but she doesn’t know when that will be possible again. “This is where I belong,” she says. “I hope this nightmare will end soon.”

null Image Alphabet Publishers.  null Publishers Alphabet Image

Alphabet Image Publishers

Zarifa, a woman’s struggle in a man’s world. Zarifa Ghafari and Hana Lucinda Smith, Alphabet Publishing

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