My three years as a mayor in Afghanistan

Zarifa Ghafari discusses her struggle for equality and the multiple attempts on her life with co-author Hannah Lucinda Smith – and what happened when she went home.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Zarifa Ghafari

Activist and former mayor in Wardak, Afghanistan

Hannah Lucinda Smith

The Times correspondent in Turkey, and author of 'Erdogan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey'

Zarifa: A Woman’s Battle in a Man’s World
Zarifa Ghafari and Hannah Lucinda Smith, Hachette, £20

Zarifa Ghafari was Afghanistan’s youngest female mayor when appointed to office in 2018 in Wardak, a Taliban heartland. As mayor she fought corruption, championed women’s rights – and survived six attacks. She fled Afghanistan following the withdrawal of western forces, and now lives in Germany. Her self-titled book of her life was co-written by the Istanbul-based journalist Hannah Lucinda Smith, and a documentary called ‘In Her Hands’ was released on Netflix in November. Here, Zarifa and Hannah discuss their work together and their recent trip back to Afghanistan. 

Zarifa
I believe you can really make policymakers change their policies through the telling of stories if they realize how their decisions affect people. We all know so many stories about victims, about being in exile, about refugees. But I don’t remember any story about not giving up, about returning and standing there and facing those people.

By the time I was 24, I was leading rooms full of men. I am so proud of that

Zarifa Ghafaria

Hannah
The first draft of the manuscript ended with you leaving Afghanistan and everything that you had built, and seeing the Taliban get this final victory. It just didn’t square with the person that I knew, because you are not a victim. So, it was actually a relief when you called to tell me you were going to go back to Afghanistan. It was going to be something that elevated the book from being just another depressing story of a woman having to leave her country to instead being the story of a woman who is brave enough to go back and look the Taliban in the eye. Then the day we arrived in Afghanistan was the very day Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Zarifa
I knew after Ukraine happened, Afghanistan would stop being of interest to the world media. I needed to return because the change needs to come from within the country. Especially if we say the Taliban are not representative of the Afghan people, then we need to represent ourselves and our society. 

Hannah
The growth of social media has lulled a lot of people such as journalists and activists into thinking they can do their work by just sitting behind a desk and typing angrily. You can’t. You might get a lot of followers and likes but what are you changing? Nothing. You have to be there on the ground. 

Trailer for In Her Hands, a Netflix documentary about Zafira Ghafari in the run-up to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021

Freedom in exile

Zarifa
The most important aspect of being outside the country is freedom of expression. In Afghanistan there is no free press, there is no platform from which people can share their stories, ideas and thoughts, especially about politics or the economy. The humanitarian crisis, poverty, the lack of social services and healthcare services – these are the things that people need to talk about. If they are not able to talk, I think it is important to be their voice, and I have an audience. It is a huge responsibility, but I’m so committed to my country. 

I have reported in troubled places, but I have never seen the kind of poverty we witnessed in Kabul

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah
It has to be Afghans such as Zarifa in Europe constantly talking to western leaders at conferences and places like that to drive this crisis home. Clearly, on a different level is a humanitarian need. I have reported in some pretty troubled places before, but I have never seen the kind of poverty we witnessed in Kabul. When you have constant, rolling news, things become less real. People really need to re-engage properly with what is happening. 

Zarifa
When I was six years old, I wasn’t allowed to enter a room full of men. You are told that this is normal in society. By the time I was 24, I was leading rooms full of men – dozens of men. I am so proud of that. But people have tried to damage my honour, tried to break me down by calling me a bitch, a whore and other names. I still experience that on my social media.

When I face hate speech like this, I remember what my father told me: ‘If you can’t take this then you are not able to go forwards. If you are not going forward, don’t waste your time, just sit at home. This is the type of society that you started working in.’

Zarifa Ghafari attends a meeting in Afghanistan

Zarifa Ghafari: ‘By the time I was 24, I was leading rooms full of men’

Hannah
These kinds of attitudes towards women are universal, right? The patronizing; the saying to a woman: ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t do that because it’s not safe for you, it’s not good for you.’ This kind of thinking and these systems are very good for men, let us not kid ourselves, because they allow mediocre men to fly above brilliant women. And it is just so infuriating. 

With the multiple numerous attacks against you, Zarifa, I think most people would take fright. But it has happened to you again and again, and you keep going back. That is a message to any man, who wants to try and say: ‘Women can’t be in these government positions because they are not strong enough or not capable enough.’ ‘Well, how many attacks have you survived, mate?’ That is what I would say to those guys. 

Zarifa
Yes, yes exactly. In Afghanistan the moment a girl is born it is as if the honour of the family is born with her. If a guy rapes a girl, instead of punishing him, sometimes they try to marry the girl to her rapist so it is kept quiet. In some cases, the family kills their daughter or their sister. They will blame her for damaging the family’s honour. Seriously, who told you to put your honour in my body? I never gave you permission to do that.

Zarifa Ghafari and Hannah Lucinda Smith in Afghanistan

Zarifa Ghafari and Hannah Lucinda Smith in Afghanistan  in 2022

 

Islam vs Islamism

Hannah
The killing of rape victims happens in Turkey as well and in Syria, where I have reported. Do you think it is something that is linked to Islam, or do you think it is something that is linked to the culture? 

Zarifa
The Quran says that you should not kill anyone. It doesn’t matter if they are Hindu, Christian or Muslim – only God has that power. What is happening in Afghanistan is more about extremist ideologies of Islam and cultural traditions. Islam states that education is compulsory for men and women. But the Taliban interpret Islam as not supporting modern education. Between 70 and 80 per cent of women are still illiterate. 

Hannah
One of the most depressing things is when women are so limited that they can’t even see their own limitations. That is so depressing. These women are going to be married at 13; they are going to have 10 or more children and for me, the tragedy is, that they are not afforded enough education to know there could be something else. That is the ultimate control and why basic literacy is so important.

Returning home 

Hannah
When we went to Afghanistan in February 2022, it was clearly a time of change because by that time the Taliban had been in charge for six months. There was no fighting. As a foreigner, I never felt threatened. The Taliban were never going to do something to me because they wanted international acceptance and for the aid organizations to start working there again.  If you had been travelling by yourself, I have no doubt that you would have been arrested. I was worried for you the whole time that we were there. This is in the book, but at the airport the Taliban didn’t want to let you leave the country. They were trying to separate me from you. 

I was a mayor for three years, I did so many good things

Zarifa Ghafaria

Zarifa
They were trying to separate us, so they could do anything to me they wanted. I will definitely keep working for my country and people. It doesn’t matter who is running the government. I don’t have any intention of running for office. I did three years in my mayorship, and I did so many good things. I feel I did my part, let us give someone else that space.

If the women and people of my country would ask me and trust me to do anything for them, even be a part of the government, I will not say no. But not within the system as it is right now.