Zarifa Ghafari: the mayor taking strides for women’s rights in Afghanistan

Zarifa Ghafari. (Credit: Sabine Papilloud)

“I wouldn’t wish anyone to wear my shoes.”

Zarifa Ghafari, 29, one of Afghanistan’s first and youngest female mayors, has walked through more danger and adversity than most.

In November 2020, her father, a colonel in the Afghan special forces, was killed outside his home in Kabul, in an attack Ghafari believes was carried out by the Taliban to intimidate her. Ghafari herself has been subject to a number of death threats, and in the summer of 2018 on her first day in office as mayor of Maidan Shar, a city in the province of Wardak around 30 miles from Kabul, she was forced to leave after being mobbed by angry protesters.

Since returning and officially taking up her role in 2019,  Ghafari has run her office with unswerving resolve. “When I started my job people were not accepting a woman as the leader of a technical office. They were ignoring me, they were laughing at me and making challenges for me.”

“After two years of work...what I am proud of is that the people of my city and those who are watching me daily, are believing in women's power, women's ability as a leader and as a top official in office,” she told Geneva Solutions over the phone, above the sound of chatter and street noises. She talks quickly and her voice is confident and unwavering.

Due to speak at Geneva’s International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights on Friday, Ghafari says she wants to give a voice to the women in her country and share her hopes for “a brighter and better future” for Afghanistan, especially in light of current peace talks.

“I would really love to speak out about all the challenges and achievements that everyone in Afghanistan, especially women are facing. I want to share what exactly I am doing, who I am, what I'm struggling for, and what everything means for me, especially women’s rights, human rights and gender equality. And most importantly, what education means to all women in this country.”

Holding out for peace in Afghanistan. Last week marked a year since the United States signed a troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban aimed at ending the 20-year war in Afghanistan. The agreement is now being reviewed by the new US administration.

US and Nato allies were supposed to withdraw all troops by 1 May, providing that the Taliban reduced violence and did not allow its members or other groups, including al-Qaeda, to use Afghanistan to threaten the US and its allies. The deal also committed the Taliban to engaging in national peace negotiations with the Afghan government, which have been underway in Doha since September.

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But there is still no official ceasefire in place and despite several rounds of peace talks, violence has escalated in Afghanistan, with the number of targeted killings up by 45 per cent since 2019, according to the UN. While large scale attacks have declined, assassinations of civilians, activists, journalists and political figures have become all too regular occurrences.

Women and children have been disproportionately hit, with more women killed in 2020 than in any year since the UN began its records on the conflict in 2009. In January, two women judges working for the Afghan supreme court were shot on their way to work. Although most attacks have gone unclaimed, Afghan and US officials have blamed them on Taliban insurgents.

“Nowadays in Afghanistan, everyone is afraid of living here,” Ghafani says.  “As a woman, as an activist and government official, I am afraid for my security but I am more afraid for my family's security.”

Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban have largely stalled in recent weeks with prospects of a deal being reached uncertain. After two rounds of talks, “there is still no positive news”, says Ghafani, with the escalation of violence further endangering the fragile peace process.  “The only option for the people of this country is a ceasefire. If we are not having a ceasefire, then peace negotiations mean nothing,” she adds.

Human rights groups have also expressed fears that in negotiating with the Taliban the rights of Afghan women and the hard-won gains of the last 20 years are at risk of being compromised, leaving their fate uncertain.

“Having spent two decades fighting hard to win their most basic rights, Afghan women now face the real possibility of seeing these gains bargained away,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan campaigner in a statement in November.

The Taliban have stated that they will “protect” women’s rights under sharia, and according to interviews conducted by the one of authors of a Brookings Institute article on women’s rights in Afghanistan, interlocuters have said they do not want a return to the 1990s.

However, their statements leave room for interpretation. Gharifa says: “The Taliban are nowadays promising people that they are able to respect women's rights… But we already had their government ruling in this country and we saw they did nothing for women. They killed women, they destroyed women's image and their future. So, I'm really not able to trust them with respect to women's rights because they may have already failed.”

There are only four women on the Afghan government’s 21-member team - even though several women play prominent roles within the national government - and none on the Taliban’s side of the peace talks.  Nevertheless, Ghafani says she’s “very proud” of their work, even if female representation should be much higher. “I really wish they could represent my voice and my mum's voice too.”

Afghans hold placards as they rally to support the Doha peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government, in Herat, Afghanistan, 21 September 2020. (Photo: Keystone/EPA/Jalil Rezayee)

Education and security, the key to women’s future. Looking back on the last century, women’s rights in Afghanistan have varied greatly, sometimes improving but most often exploited throughout its changing and tumultuous political landscape.

Women were first eligible to vote in 1919 under the reign of King Amanullah Khan but after tribal leaders took power in 1929, many of his reforms were overturned.  In the 1960s, women were once again granted voting rights after a new constitution brought equality to many areas of social life. But from the 1970s and until the end of the Taliban rule in 2001, the situation deteriorated once again as the group shuttered girls’ schools and prevented women from working, denied them access to healthcare, among other abuses.

Today, there are more girls enrolled in school and women are more politically and socially engaged. Women like Zarifa have become politicians, activists, doctors, lawyers, teachers and business owners. However, many limitations, hardships and dangers remain.

“Whenever I'm reading about the past I'm really feeling kind of horrified because whatever we are today, it wasn’t the goal 100 years back.” She mentions Soraya Tarzi, the first Queen consort of Afghanistan in the early 20th century and the wife of King Amanullah Khan, who played an instrumental role in pushing for women’s rights and education, for example, opening the first primary school for girls in Kabul.

“Definitely since that period until now, we are not improving… But what I am really proud of and what gives me courage are the elders like my grandma, like my family members who are older than me.”

Her mother, a school teacher, remains her ultimate role model, recounting how she lost her father as a child and now her husband. “She has faced more [challenges] than anyone and still she is standing here, still she's living, she is serving as a teacher since 28 years ago.”

Outside of Afghanistan, she says her role models are Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama [“I love her”] as well as the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Kamala Harris is the newest addition to her list. “What she's doing is amazing.”

Now a role model herself for women inside and outside her country, and an advocate for women’s rights, it’s this she says that inspires her to work every day and pave the way for other women in Afghanistan. Ghafari earned her bachelor’s degree in India and was midway through an economic masters when her parents encouraged her to apply for a civil service exam. The exam changed the course of her life and parachuted her straight into her role as mayor of Maidan Shar, a city of around 35,000 people.

For more girls and women to thrive and succeed, there first needs to be greater security, she says. Secondly, there needs to be more focus on bringing social and economic empowerment to women in villages and rural areas of Afghanistan, with most efforts still concentrated on cities. “These are the best options to get more girls into schools,” she says.

For those like Zarifa, in public roles and at the forefront of protecting women’s rights, everyday brings uncertainty and danger - but it is also a privilege, she says.

“It doesn't matter where I am. It doesn't matter what I'm doing, it doesn't matter with whom I am with …. my life is always at risk. I am trying to do my best for this country….I’m so so confident continuing my job as a female mayor and serving the local people of my city. It will be a very big honour to live for my country.”