Zarifa Ghafari was 26 years old when she was declared mayor of the Afghan provincial capital Maidan Shahr in 2018. She is not only one of the few female city leaders in the country, but also the youngest. In a country characterized by strict religious conservatism and sometimes extremism, this success is turning into hell: Ghafari is being hunted down by an angry mob, and at times she can only do her work as mayor under conditions that would be absurd for her German counterparts. Her father is murdered by the Taliban. Nevertheless, she manages to move things forward - to build schools, to create order. At least for a few months.
WORLD: Ms. Ghafari, in your autobiography you try to present a more unbiased view of the people of Afghanistan. For example, by explaining the important role that elderly men play in society: They are “illiterate, but wise”. In the west, the former seems to be the most common. Does that bother you?
Ghafari: These people were never listened to or given a chance. But this is the real Afghanistan. These are the people who live there. They ask me for help to build schools for girls. It's killing me. In recent years, a new generation has emerged that is working and could have helped the country get off the ground - every corner of the country. But we never gave them the chance.
WORLD: Are the Taliban avoiding the mistakes of western forces in not caring about the large rural population?
Ghafari: It is important that the Taliban are not a government. They just aren't. They're just a group. One that has no expertise in government issues. So I don't expect anything from them. I was skeptical at first, but since they closed the schools again, I've been like: Get rid of these guys. History repeats itself in Afghanistan every 25 to 30 years. Why? Because we approach the country with the same strategies, the same processes, all of which have failed so many times.
WORLD: Do you think this circle, which repeats itself every few decades, can be broken?
Ghafari: Yes, because I believe in myself, in my generation. I believe in the women of this country. We will definitely conquer everything dark around us. So, yes, I'm optimistic and see things positively.
WORLD: But how is that supposed to work, especially since an Islamist group is now in charge of the country?
Ghafari: It must come from the interior of the country. The people of the country must be given the chance to speak for themselves. The diaspora, the people abroad who can speak English well, who have connections and give speeches, they can be good representatives for the country. But it is difficult for them to represent, for example, the father who lost his entire family during this 20-year war. Whose living conditions are still dire, who has no food.
When the Taliban overran the country in August 2021 and took it back entirely after Western forces withdrew, Ghafari was one of the lucky ones to make it onto a plane out of the country. For her, this is less a rescue than a defeat - a few months later she returns to Afghanistan. She is honored for her commitment, the BBC put her on the list of the "100 most inspiring and influential women" in 2019, and shortly after her escape she was received by Angela Merkel. She wrote a book about her experiences ("Zarifa - Afghanistan - My Homeland, My Story", DTV, 328 pages, 22 euros), which was also picked up by Netflix as a documentary. The film will be released on the streaming platform on November 16th.
WORLD: Germany was there for 20 years. Nevertheless, interest in Afghanistan does not seem to be particularly pronounced in this country. How do you perceive the German view of your country now that you are here in the meantime?
Ghafari: I am very grateful to the German government for their commitment. But Germany has always said that it is not for fighting in Afghanistan.
WORLD: It took a long time before the war in Afghanistan was even referred to as such in Germany.
Ghafari: Folks, if you were there for humanitarian aid, why did you leave when Kabul was under Taliban control? You wanted to help the country and the people - I am happy that Germany has at least taken in so many people from Afghanistan. Germany is doing more than so many other countries in the world. We were always told, for example, that India is Afghanistan's best friend. But recently not a single visa has been issued to Afghans there. Germany is much further.
WORLD: You returned to Afghanistan in February. On the ground they saw that some of what they had promoted had been undone - illegal construction that you had prevented and which is now being carried out. How was that for you? And will you be traveling to Afghanistan again soon?
Ghafari: Definitely, seeing the setbacks didn't feel good. When I returned to my city, it was completely destroyed. Everything was in chaos, which broke my heart once more. Nevertheless, I am happy that I could at least be an example of good work, of the power of women. I showed people a feeling they hardly knew: that they can trust women. I'm really happy about that. Afghanistan is my country, that's where I belong. I also owe this country something, I have to give something back. And that's only possible if you're in the country yourself.
WORLD: Do you regret anything about your commitment? Presumably you could have led at least a somewhat quieter life.
Ghafari: No. I don't regret anything. I didn't have the opportunities that mayors have outside of Afghanistan, for example in European countries. Nevertheless, I managed to get schools built. Also schools for girls. I would have liked to have done more and that makes me sad. On the other hand, I'm 27 years old, I still have a lot of time and work ahead of me.
WORLD: You say it, you are still very young. What are your plans for the near future?
Ghafari: I will remain who I am. I will stand up for my people all my life. And for this attitude, it doesn't matter where I live either – inside or outside of Afghanistan.
WORLD: Despite your personal tragedies.
Ghafari: Yes, nevertheless. My father was murdered. It's so bad that he's gone and I can only talk about him as a memory. But he's not the only one who died for this country. He is my personal sorrow, my pain, my loss. But I want these personal losses to affect my work just as little as my successes. Right now the most important issue is that schools are opened to girls. So I'm trying to set up a coalition – worldwide. Whoever has a voice should use it and speak on this subject. Because it's so important.
It has been exactly a year since the radical Islamic Taliban seized power in Afghanistan – shortly after the US and its allies withdrew their troops around 20 years ago. Since then, the situation on the ground has deteriorated drastically.
Source: WORLD / Vivien Krüger
WORLD: You have already mentioned that, from your point of view, the people within Afghanistan should be listened to more and the focus should be less on the diaspora. Is it somehow macabre-ironic for you that you are now in the diaspora yourself?
Ghafari: I don't see myself as a diaspora.
WORLD: Not even as a temporary, involuntary diaspora?
Ghafari: I mean: I was in Afghanistan until the very last moment. I got my family to safety and returned as soon as I could. Right now I'm in Germany, but I'll go back to Afghanistan again as soon as my appointments here are over.
WORLD: Also because you don't want to be one of those who will come back to the country from outside at some point, take over posts and no longer have such a strong connection to the people there?
Ghafari: The main thing is to build a government, a system within Afghanistan. When the Taliban disappeared in the early 2000s, we did it with people from outside because we didn't have the resources at home. People from outside have been given ministerial posts, medical posts and the like. They worked there, but they didn't live there - they never brought their families to Afghanistan. There's a big difference between working in a place and actually living there.
WORLD: So who should get these jobs now?
Ghafari: Today we have enough talent, enough resources within the country. Let's give these people a chance. We must not allow warlords to post again, nor just people from outside. The diaspora is wonderful. We are very happy that we have them. But posting something on social media from a coffee shop on a beach is very different from actually living, feeling and serving in the affected country.
WORLD: Only the Taliban are in power now, and they won't allow it without further ado. You are the best judge, you traveled to the country as a liberal representative, even though it was under Taliban rule. In your book you write that killing you is no longer worthwhile for the Taliban because they want to be perceived as a serious government. Aren't you worried that a young Talib, for example, doesn't care about politics and takes up arms on his own?
Ghafari: I'm ready for anything. The first time I landed in Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, I got off the plane and I felt the beautiful sunlight on my face, the beautiful weather... Oh, that was something special. At that moment I thought to myself: if I die, I'll die in my own country. And that would be okay.
WORLD: How did you react on site?
Ghafari: I was called a "slut" and a "whore". They claimed: This woman sleeps with dogs (laughs). This is their ideology, which they believe gives them the right to kill me. In the town where I was mayor - which I served - there was this old man who said, 'Look at these boys walking the streets. They do not have any work. And then this woman who should be at home, who should cook, give birth and serve her husband, comes and fills a position where she is above us'. I fight against this ideology. Going back to Afghanistan is part of that.
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