Zarifa Ghafari, one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors: ‘Sometimes you don’t have to die carrying a gun: you simply leave the house’

The 30-year-old fled Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Her return to the country has been met with criticism in some quarters

Zarifa Ghafari, one of the first female mayors in Afghanistan, in Kabul last March.
Zarifa Ghafari, one of the first female mayors in Afghanistan, in Kabul last March.Thibault Lefébure

Zarifa Ghafari arrives hurriedly and out of breath at the Kabul hotel where she has asked for the interview to take place. The director of a Netflix documentary about her, In Her Hands, follows behind. To her left is the writer who will help her to turn her experiences into an autobiography, Zarifa: A Woman’s Battle in a Man’s World. Now, both projects have already been announced, because the interview took place last March, a little over six months after the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.

It is the first time that Ghafari, 30, one of the first female mayors in Afghanistan, has returned to her country following the traumatic events of the summer of 2021, when the Taliban launched their offensive, causing tens of thousands to flee. Ghafari and her family managed to escape via Turkey to Germany. Her return, far from being viewed just as an achievement, has sparked controversy on social media. Some critical commentators accuse her of downplaying the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan by deciding to go back, and even of whitewashing the Taliban.

She denies these claims. Over the past few years, Ghafari’s work has not been smiled upon by the fundamentalists. She served as mayor in Maidan Shahr, a small city around 30 miles to the southwest of Kabul and capital of the Maidan Wardak province. It was 2018 and she was 26 years old. Despite the many obstacles placed in her way, including protests and death threats, she remained in the post until she was promoted, a few months before the Taliban took Kabul, to a position in the Afghan Defense Ministry.

Her father, a veteran special forces commander under the previous government, was assassinated in 2020. The Taliban were widely suspected of involvement. Despite threats and harassment, Ghafari says she remains committed to her country and accepts the risks. As such, she wants to split her time between Europe, where her family still live, and Afghanistan, where the day before the interview she inaugurated a donor-funded center where women receive free education and workshops in handicrafts and tailoring, among other activities. Her long-term goal is for these centers to be set up in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

Question. How did you start out in politics and manage to become a mayor in a country like Afghanistan?

Answer. I always wanted to work with, among and for people. Starting out in governmental work and taking on responsibilities was not an attempt to enter into politics. But ever since I was a child, I wanted to do something important. That’s why I joined the Afghan Youth Parliament after gaining a Master’s degree in Economics in India. I set up a radio station with the person who is now my life partner and later started an organization, and from there I applied to join a program to become a mayor.

Q. How do you remember your time in office?

A. It was really incredible. In three years, I grew at a pace that helped me not only to develop my career, but also to learn about my own society, my country and what my people wanted. I have always wanted to do so many things for other places, although I wasn’t able to because I was stuck within the context of the city. When I left my post, four months before the fall of Kabul, I hoped that another woman would succeed me.

Q. Being a female mayor of a conservative city must have been very challenging.

A. When I was mayor, any little problem within the city became a huge disaster for everybody, and I was subjected to a lot of attacks, on social media and at events… “The mayor doesn’t work; she isn’t up to the job.” Now everything is a huge disaster and nobody is saying anything. That leads me to believe that I was criticized simply because I was a woman.

Q. You also faced threats from the Taliban.

A. Yes, I have been attacked three times and my father was assassinated – by the Taliban, according to information we received from the government at the time. I had to face a lot of things as the mayor of a very conservative Afghan city. Firstly, to foster trust between the people and myself. Secondly, dealing with the extremist ideologies of those who, when talking to women, were only thinking about cooking and babies. Speaking to them and giving them orders was extremely problematic. The insecurity caused by the Taliban, having a mafia inside the city, with a group of very corrupt local governors within the office, gave me a lot of headaches.

Q. The biggest of those came in August, 2021. What was your experience of the fall of Kabul?

A. On 15 August at 11.30am I was still in my office, here in Kabul, at the Defense Ministry. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I finally came to terms with it in the middle of the night, when Al Jazeera broadcast live footage from inside the presidential palace. It wasn’t because of the change of government, because it doesn’t matter to me who is the king or what government is in place. It was a matter of my rights, my work, my struggles. I saw a big change coming, that would affect my life and the life of my father. My sisters wouldn’t be able to enjoy a free life, I wouldn’t be able to walk the streets like a normal citizen. That was the moment when I broke down and cried. I didn’t sleep at all that night.

Q. You decided to pack up and run.

A. I left the country to provide my family with a safe haven. We managed to get to the airport with help from the Turkish Embassy. It was difficult, I wore a black hijab to hide my face. From there we went to Islamabad and from there to Turkey. I arrived in Germany on August 22 with my whole family. After the death of my father, I was responsible for them as I am the eldest. My mother was three years old when she lost her father, and she had just lost her husband. I didn’t want them to pay for my decisions.

Q. You are back in Afghanistan now for the first time since the Taliban regained power. What are your feelings?

A. I admit there are a lot of problems. But other things lend you the power of self-resilience. I have seen girls walking through the door of Kabul University and that has given me a huge shot of energy, it has been the best medicine for all this pain. At the same time, I have seen women begging for food on the street. If they could go to an office, any type of office, and work, maybe they would have enough to eat, at least once a day.

I have seen women begging for food on the street. If they could work maybe they would have enough to eat

Q. High school students have not been able to resume classes. Could that also happen at the universities?

A. We’ll see what happens. For now, this vision of women going to university has given me strength to resist. People – especially outside of Afghanistan – talk of armed resistance, of war… but I think resistance through education works better. Sometimes you don’t have to die carrying a gun: you simply get ready and leave the house. Like me, who has risked everything. It’s not easy. I came back, I’m here and so far, nothing has happened to me. But of course, I see a lot of problems and difficulties, and I am going to talk about them. Like yesterday: in an interview on a national television channel, I was asked about women’s rights. I urged the Taliban leaders to release all female prisoners. No one dares to do that. It doesn’t bother me; I am prepared to risk everything because I believe I am doing the right thing. That is how we must resist.

Q. Did you have to come to some agreement to guarantee your safety in order to return to Afghanistan?

A. I don’t need to come to agreements with anybody to return to my own home. I’ve already told everybody, in all of the interviews I’ve done since I’ve been here, that if anyone is able to prove that I have made some kind of arrangement with the Taliban, I’m ready to pay whatever they want. But I don’t need to do that: this is my country. Of course, the Taliban know that I’m here; I went through immigration control at Kabul Airport when I arrived.

Q. There has been some criticism on social media about your return to Afghanistan.

A. There are a lot of rumors surrounding me, especially from those who are not in Afghanistan. People think I earn a lot of money from donations and that’s why I’ve come back, maybe to give it to the Taliban. But a lot of women believe in what I am doing. What I have been saying over the past few days in Afghanistan is the same thing I have been saying since I left the country, before the previous government fell.

Q. Access to EL PAÍS is blocked in Afghanistan because of international sanctions against the Taliban. Is there a message you’d like to send to the international community, foreign governments or NGOs?

A. I’d like the international community to pay attention. I share the pain of the Ukrainian people; I feel hurt for Ukraine and its people. But at the same time, the same crisis is taking place in my country. We need aid to be delivered to people on the ground, especially to those women who don’t have anyone to look out for them.

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