Activist Zarifa Ghafari on the Taliban, Returning to Kabul

A woman with dark hair and dark eyes, wearing a white headscarf and cream ribbed knit top, looks at the camera.

Photo: Insa Hagemann / laif / Redux

As the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Zarifa Ghafari watched as a plane took off from Kabul airport, unable to take his eyes off as civilians tried to cling to machinery that had crashed onto the runway. The symbolic scene of the hasty evacuation of the United States underscores a profound despair. For many residents of the capital, Falling from the bottom of an airplane is preferable to living under a conservative and vengeful uprising. For Ghafari, Afghanistan’s youngest female mayor and an outspoken critic of the Taliban, their return threatens particularly dire consequences.

She recalls the struggle when Kabul fell in a new memoir, Zarifa: Women’s Battle in Men’s World (takes place on October 11): her unexpected rescue from the streets near her office by a taxi driver, who recognizes her face. She walks through the city in high heels. She frantically bought a long dress to camouflage herself in case she encountered a Taliban soldier who, before identifying her as an overt critic of the group, might label her a key employee. government. The disturbance took days to move her family from safe house to safe house. Review her haunting airport clip. “Do they really think they’ll be able to hang on for hours, in freezing temperatures, at high altitude?” she writes. “Do they know they’re going to die, and do they care?”

Eventually, Ghafari found himself inside one of the departing planes. After putting her family and fiance on the evacuation lists of four countries, a diplomatic friend secured all positions on a flight to Germany via Istanbul. She took our Zoom call from the apartment in Germany she shares with her fiancé, just back from attending Europe and the Toronto International Film Festival. Ghafari is doing journalism not only for her book, but for In her hand, a recently released Netflix documentary about her life produced by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. Sitting at her desk in the corner, wearing a black headscarf and red lipstick, she was vivacious but sounded tired at times, like when she recalled the rude question from a recent interview. here in Amsterdam. “’Do you think that wearing this scarf might be related to the phobia of Islam? Why do you still wear this scarf, live in Germany? ”, she recounted. “My scarf is my business, not yours. In my country, women are dying from hunger, poverty, harassment, human rights violations. Girls are not allowed to go to school. And you’re sitting here spending ten minutes of my interview time just talking about the scarf. “

These moments of frustration and outrage liven up our conversations. When responding to criticism or making suggestions of his own, Ghafari speaks with his hands. She is candid when it comes to personal loss, especially leaving Afghanistan. She didn’t want to leave and insisted her family’s safety was the only reason she did. In November 2020, anonymous gunmen shot and killed her father outside his home in an attack she believes the Taliban orchestrated. Having survived multiple assassination attempts herself, she feared that staying would put targets behind her loved ones.

“I had to put all my personal feelings, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, priorities in life aside and just focus on my family responsibilities,” she said of his exit. “It was hard and it was terrible,” not least because she felt she was witnessing the country she worked to build. “Whenever you walk into a store, this salesperson knows you, compliments you on your work, and loves you. And then everything was gone for an hour.”

Having lived through the first Taliban regime as a young girl, Ghafari, now 28, recalls in her memoirs the “series of rules” and a “monochromatic” existence in a capital city. With no music, kites or card games, the streets littered with dead canaries are now banned as pets. She recalled the burka her mother kept on a hook by the front door, and watched a woman beaten in the street, ostensibly revealing one of her feet.

Zarifa Ghafari works in her mayor’s office in Maidan Shar in 2019.
Photo: JIM HUYLEBROEK / The New York Times / Redux

Ghafari herself as a child secretly attended an illegal basement school, as women and girls were not educated and encouraged to stay out of sight at home. As an adult and a rare Afghan woman working in a position of power, Ghafari spoke out against the Taliban – with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after the US signed a peace deal with them in 2014. 2020, and in the media – making the stakes of their return both personal and pressing. Women’s rights activists to stay have been kidnapped, detained and tortured.

The decision to leave a country in the midst of a hostile takeover is not something that needs to be justified, although for Ghafari it represents an aspect of normalcy. Since she became a public figure, Ghafari seems to accept the possibility of a politically motivated death. “Afghan town’s first female mayor awaits her assassination,” is how New York Times titled Ghafari’s 2019 profile, more than a year after she won her appointment – through a multi-round application and exam process rather than an election – to Maidan Shar’s mayor in 2018. Several other women have served as governors and mayors in Afghanistan, but none like Wardak, a conservative province bordering Kabul, where support for the Taliban is high and women mostly stay at home.

For much of the first year after her victory, angry local men blocked Ghafari from starting work. Some of them gathered in front of her office with sticks and stones. The situation became so uncomfortable that she eventually threatened, in writing, to set herself on fire in front of the presidential palace. “If it happens to me and I keep quiet,” she said of that campaign of intimidation, “tomorrow, it happens to someone else.” After her father was killed and a few months before the Taliban took over, she moved from the post of mayor to a position in the defense ministry. Although she insisted that she was willing to die for her country, she took a different view of the choice to leave Kabul. “I believe living longer is best,” she told me. “If you live longer, then you can change more.”

The change Ghafari wants to see in Afghanistan focuses on the education of girls and women, and in February 2022, she announced her return to Kabul and to the women’s vocational training center and maternity clinic. which she opened remotely from Germany. Despite initial promises to respect women’s rights, the Taliban seem to have fallen into the old mold. The system prohibits girls from finishing primary school and women do not hold most jobs, leaving female heads of households less able to support themselves without a patriarch. A recent United Nations report shows that only about 10% of Afghan women can afford basic health needs and the mortality rate is on the rise. Against this backdrop, while many observers praised Ghafari’s work, others accused her of cutting her contract with the Taliban to arrange a trip or maliciously normalizing their rule.

“I don’t put that value on the words of people sitting in coffee shops and writing something they know nothing about,” she told me. In her book, however, she notes that the stinging comments come from other women. However, she asked, “If I don’t go, who will?” A fair point, as is the simple desire to see your city, your family, your friends.

What may surprise critics, as well as readers who have seen the Taliban as a terrorist, is Ghafari’s position in the group now. In her book, Ghafari recalls what she saw back in Kabul: girls with books in their hands, women on the street who sometimes “show off their glamorous outfits beneath long scarves.” which they covered themselves”. She observed traces of an efficient government, in contrast to the “corrupt and dysfunctional” system she had worked in, ultimately unpaid, for months. “Is this Taliban just worse in other ways than those who have been in power before?” she writes. “If so, then what’s the point of the battles I’ve fought all my life?”

Ghafari sounded less conflicted in our conversation. The Taliban, she said, “were the killers of my father.” But for her, the limited focus on the Taliban as an absolute villain seems to miss a bigger point. She pointed out that the US gave mujaheddin “lords” a seat at the negotiating table after toppling the Taliban in 2001, washing away a bloody reputation into a “respectable” political career. “There was no Taliban when mujaheddin prevented girls from going to school,” she said. “There was no Taliban when mujaheddin started raping women in groups.” Spanning at least 60 years in Afghanistan, it’s “same game, same policy, same strategy, same players” as Ghafari puts it. “Black flag to white, white to green, green to black, this is the only thing.”

The external forces that Ghafari wants to see are responsible for the terrorist acts in her country. She understands why the inhabitants of rural Afghanistan are confronting the Taliban after repeatedly losing loved ones to US air strikes. “I share the pain of the 3,500 or 2,500 US soldiers who died in the last 20 years in Afghanistan, because they too are part of the dirty games you guys are playing,” she said. But Afghanistan has lost nearly 50,000 civilians in a war it didn’t start. “If the international community had paid, we would have paid for them,” Ghafari said, adding: “They lit this fire and now they shut themselves down. “

In the future, she says she wants to focus more on her hometown people than politics. “When I left Afghanistan, for more than six, seven months, I went everywhere, I said everywhere and I thought, ‘The international community needs to do this. We ask the international community to do this. ‘ ‘The international community, the international community.’ And then I realized that no international community would listen to my voice,” she explained. “It gives you a sense of being completely disconnected from the world you live in.”

She wants to return home immediately after suspending her schedule, this time to stay longer. At her center, she said, “We’re doing something. I don’t care that people may label me ‘boycott the Taliban.’ “As mayor, she continued, ‘I’m serving my people. “The government may now belong to the group she has spent her career fighting against, but her people are right where she left them. Activist Zarifa Ghafari on the Taliban, Returning to Kabul

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