Mayor Zarifa Ghafari: Fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan

The current war in Afghanistan began with the United States invasion on 7 October 2001. It has cost the USA 1 trillion US dollars and the world, including Afghanistan, over 150,000 lives. The Washington Post’s ‘Afghanistan Papers’ is the latest contribution to a growing argument over whether the conflict, or any of the ‘forever wars’, was worth the cost.

Mayor Zarifa Ghafari

Here, we talk to Mayor Zarifa Ghafari, a brave woman who argues for continued international presence in “Afghanistan’s international war” and how at both a local and international level we can all make a difference to create peace, equal opportunities and better societies.

Only 27 years old, Mayor Zarifa Ghafari has an MA in Economics from the University of Punjab and has overcome many challenges to create both success for herself and her people.

As well as carrying out her role as the first female mayor of Maidan Shahr, capital city of a province in Afghanistan, she is the founder of Peghla radio station and of NGO “APAW” Assistance and Promotion of Afghan Women. In this ideaXme interview, we talk of the daily challenges and threats that both she and her country face.

Awaiting her assassination

Mayor Zarifa Ghafari, told The New York Times in October 2019 that she awaits her assassination. Threats to her security are centered on the work she carries out as a female mayor in a war-zone. She remains adamant: “I am in love with my job!”

Ghafari took up her position as the first female mayor of Maidan Shahr, capital of Maidan Wardak province Afghanistan, 10 months ago.

She explains to ideaXme why the Afghanistan war is an international war that requires a continued international presence in Afghanistan. She talks of her work to promote women’s rights and education, the numerous projects for which she has been responsible for in her 10 months so far as mayor. Ghafari also talks of her journey to becoming mayor and the hurdles she faced in taking up the position. Moreover, she explains why she urgently needs security assistance to continue the work she does.

Below, read the full interview transcript which includes details of who Mayor Zarifa would like to meet as well as who has helped her the most to carry out her work and further her career.

Fighting for women’s rights, security, universal access to education and economic development in a war-zone

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:02:19] Hello. Who are you?

Zarifa Ghafari, Mayor of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan [00:02:35] This is Zarifa Ghafari from Afghanistan, mayor of the Wardak Province.

Working in a war-zone

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:02:44] Your job is extremely dangerous. It is necessary as a woman, as anyone, to be very brave to do what you do. Could you talk about your job?

Zarifa Ghafari, Mayor of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan [00:02:59] My job is full of problems for me but it’s interesting, amazing and I love it because I am the first female mayor for my province of Wardak. It is still not safe. It is a war-zone province. I am a female mayor of a province where women don’t have rights. Most women are still deprived of education rights and humanitarian rights. Even walking outside is difficult.

Zarifa Ghafari, Mayor of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan [00:03:40] I am the mayor of a province where people still don’t believe women should take part in society. So, I’m really proud of my job but it’s not safe. It is really dangerous and full of problems – social, political, cultural and security problems. But I’m really proud of my job. I roam around the city and get involved with a big group of men who are not so pleased to have a female mayor. I’m in love with my job.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:04:41] You were appointed in 2018, but you weren’t allowed to take up the role immediately. Can you talk about that?

The right to do my job as Mayor of Maidan Shahr, Wardak

Zarifa Ghafari, Mayor of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan [00:04:51] Yes, for nine months I wasn’t allowed to join my office. It was really tough and full of problems. I went through a competitive process; I have a degree. But some groups of men, the land mafia and two people involved with the government were making problems for me because they didn’t want to accept a female mayor. I never lost my hope. I just kept fighting for it and went through a long process of waiting. Finally, after nine months it was over, and I became a part of my office. It was great.

[00:07:15] I’m really appreciative of everything, especially the support that I received from local people and people on social media. When I wrote my first post on social media and I asked people to help me and support me, all around the country and all around the world, people were there to do just that. The President, Ashraf Ghani, was so nice to me and solved everything so I was announced to my office.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:08:04] So tell us about some of your successes in this new position.

Zarifa Ghafari, Mayor of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan [00:08:15] It’s my 10th month working in my office and I have lots of things that I am very proud of. On my first day, the staff were not ready to work with me and when I entered, all of them came out and I was the only one inside the office.

[00:08:37] It took a lot of time to get these people to work with me. Eventually, I started doing the job that I’d been appointed for. We have completed around 13 projects of development – urban planning and urban development. In past years, there were only one or two projects developed. I am not the only woman entering the municipals. There are 10 female officials working with the municipal office, coming into the office every day and going back home.

[00:10:06] It’s great and I’m proud of it. We have achieved a 64 percent increase in revenue. It’s amazing. Over the last year, we have become the wealthiest office. This is a great achievement and I am proud of it.

[00:10:39] Right now, we are working on an underground market with over 16 shops that will be for women. It caters to the provinces and cities where women are not allowed to come out and take part in society. Women will have a market where they can buy their essentials.

Andrea Macdonald,  [00:11:05] You have been a very big champion of women in your role. You’re very keen on promoting female education. Aside from supporting women, you’re also leading campaigns on cleaning up the area through actions like litter control. Can you give some more examples of specific projects?

Zarifa Ghafari, Mayor of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan [00:11:36] Actually, I have an NGO – APAW Organisation. Moreover, I have a radio station by the name of Peghla FM. Peghla is a Pashtu word which means young girl. At the radio station, we promote women’s rights and awareness of issues affecting women. We promote educational awareness for women as well as legal awareness. At the same time, my NGO is working to support women regarding their work, education and economic development. As mayor, I am working to promote educational and economic rights for women. I don’t know for how much of this I will be ‘the champion’ but it is amazing for me to be involved.

[00:12:29] I’m happy with what I’m doing because women all around the country will hopefully follow me. Maybe in 10, 15 or 20 years, we will have many Zarifas in the country who will fight for educational rights, economic rights and especially for women’s rights.

Fighting for security

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme [00:13:21] You’ve achieved some terrific things, but the context in which you operate in is so dangerous. Recently, The Washington Post publicised the Afghanistan Papers (obtained The Afghanistan Papers, a set of internal documents from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction through a Freedom of Information Act). The Washington Post journalist Craig Whitlock writes of so many lies told around the 18-year war of Afghanistan. Most notable of which is that officials have known from the beginning that this was “an unwinnable war”. Many Americans remain nervous, possibly more so now, about how many soldiers they’ve lost. Over 150,000 people have been lost in this war. Nonetheless, if or when the American troops withdraw, it leaves a situation where security in your country will be even more challenged.

[00:14:27] It’s not an easy situation. Your country is made up of a lot of different ethnic groups and is built around tribalism. This makes the challenge of doing jobs like yours pretty extreme. In terms of your day to day work, could you talk about any threats to your security? You mentioned to The New York Times that rather terrifyingly, you await your assassination. God forbid that happens. Can you explain how threatened you feel now?

Zarifa Ghafari, Mayor of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan [00:16:24] Let me start by answering the question regarding the American troops. Afghanistan is not just facing war with one group. There’s international terrorism going on here and the international community should face it and help us in this part of this world. If Afghanistan is not safe, I think there will be problems for every country around the world.

Jalila Haider, a human rights activist from Balochistan, will receive the Inter­national Women of Courage award from US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Wednesday, said an official announcement.  — Photo courtesy Quetta Literary Festival/File USA: Jalila Haider among recipients of Women Courage Award

WASHINGTON: Jalila Haider, a human rights activist from Balochistan, will receive the International Women of Courage award from US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Wednesday, said an official announcement.

The US State Department’s spokesperson’s office identified Ms Haider as “the Iron Lady of Balochistan,” who founded “We the Humans – Pakistan”, a non-profit organisation to lift local communities by strengthening opportunities for vulnerable women and children.

She specializes in defending women’s rights and provides free counselling and legal services to poverty-affected women. The first female attorney of her Hazara community, Ms Haider led a peaceful hunger strike to recognise the right to life for the Hazaras following a series of targeted attacks. She has taken up the cause of many other vulnerable communities.

As Balochistan’s President of the Women Democratic Front and Balochistan’s branch of the Aurat (Woman’s) March, “she fought against violence against women in public spaces, at work, and at home,” said her brief introduction released by the State Department.

Secretary Pompeo will host the annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Awards at the Department of State on Wednesday to honour 12 extraordinary women from across the world. The First Lady of the United States Melania Trump will deliver remarks to recognise the extraordinary accomplishments of these women.

Now in its 14th year, the Secretary of State’s IWOC Award recognizes women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice.

Since the inception of this award in March 2007, the department has recognized 134 women from 73 countries. This year will bring the total to 146 awardees from 77 countries.

Following the IWOC ceremony, the 12 awardees will participate in an International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) visiting various cities across the United States, before reconvening in Los Angeles for the conclusion of their programme on March 16.

Besides the Baloch Hazara woman, an Afghan woman Zarifa Ghafari, who became the mayor of Maidan Shar in the conservative Wardak province at the age of 26, will also receive the award. When she showed up to start work, a male mob appeared, and she was forced to flee. Despite facing death threats, Ms Ghafari returned, defying her conservative critics and their narrative that a woman is unfit to lead.


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