An Interview with Kat Mische Elle
Zarifa Ghafari is an Afghan activist, politician, and entrepreneur. In July 2018, she became the mayor of Maidan Shahr, the capital city of the Wardak Province in Afghanistan. She is one of the first female mayors in Afghan history and the youngest, having been appointed at the age of 24.
Zarifa studied higher education in India and started a very popular radio station aimed at women in the Wardak region. Known for her efforts to advance women’s rights in Afghanistan, Zarifa experienced an untenable career in politics. After being appointed Mayor in July 2018, Zarifa became a role model to women in Afghanistan. In 2021, she became the Director of a Department of the Ministry of Defense of Afghanistan.
She received several international awards, including being named to the BBC 100 Women 2019, a list of inspirational and influential women from around the world. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s Government in mid-August 2021, Zarifa fled with her husband, mother, three sisters, and four brothers. She now temporarily resides in Germany.
“I love my country, I believe that if I continue to fight, Change is possible.”
Zarifa, your incredible journey has required extraordinary strength! How did it feel to look at your life so closely while making the Netflix documentary, In Her Hands?
The production of this documentary is very close to my heart. It’s the story of a woman coming out to an unaccepting society, of a woman’s voice and presence in a leadership position. It tells the story of a girl starting her career by fighting her own family for approval within her community rather than having support for her dreams.
The first part represents the entire population of women in my country. It is the story of every woman. And the second part of this documentary shows the divided population that supports this level of treatment of women and the others who don’t.
While I was the mayor it was a strange reality knowing that even my colleagues were related to the Taliban, who wanted to see me go including the most trustworthy person on my team, my driver. I discovered he was involved with jeopardizing my security at certain events.
Afghan women are victims of conflict, wrong policies, and war politics. But they also are symbols of resilience and commitment. I’m not just talking about myself. I am talking about my neighbors, my community, and every woman.
I am proud of this documentary because it’s the first time you can see an accurate picture of Afghanistan without edits, or any story put inside the actual events. There is nothing fake about the life of an Afghan woman in this documentary. It’s the real picture of that society for the world to see.
“I am here to be the voice of the people in Afghanistan who are not able to come out of their houses, those women who are not able to work nor to speak out.”
We started filming in January 2020 and ended in May 2022. The entire two-plus-years of the journey were filled with ups and downs; there were sacrifices, laughter, and happiness. It took over 450 hours of footage, and only 93 minutes of it made it into the documentary but I was there for every second. I know what happened, why, and how.
What is the earliest age you recall standing up for your rights?
I started realizing how different life was for me compared to my brothers and the men in my community by the age of six; I noticed the way my mom and dad spoke to me and treated me. I was not allowed to sit with my father’s colleagues. I was not allowed to go with my dad to parties, to meet people, or go to the market, but my younger brothers could. I was not allowed to walk anywhere outside of the house, but my brothers were, they were not restricted from anything.
Starting from that point, I realized it was a different life for me. Growing up, I began to understand it went beyond the walls of my house, and these restrictions were not just between my brothers and me. This was the behavior of everyone in the entire community where I lived.
From a very young age, I knew someone needed to start something and do something that could bring positive change to the community. And then I realized that I couldn’t change anything if I could not change my family’s mentality toward my abilities, work, and personality. I knew that was where I needed to start first.
I argued with my father often; I blamed him for being a part of this community. I couldn’t see how my dad wanted to protect his daughter then. I came to understand him more when I started my University, graduated, and became involved in the community.
My father felt that if I did something considered ‘wrong,’ he would be dishonored by the community, which has its own set of consequences. This was the only reality through which he knew how to navigate.
Once I became an adult and finished University, my father saw the woman I was becoming and realized that I could stand up and fight for my rights and the rights of others. He knew I could manage, handle, and tackle everything in my way.
When did your father begin to support you?
My father started supporting me and having my back when I went out into the community to discuss the injustices the women endured. He would stand next to me every time I was in a big crowd with a smile on his face. His eyes were full of love and pride.
I started addressing issues with my community, other family members, close relatives, and friends. It has been a challenging walk and fight on an even tougher road. These changes need an immense amount of support from the community.
It was becoming clear to me that I should be on a bigger platform, so I decided to run for mayor.
Winning the mayoral position was bittersweet. I was making progress in the changes that needed to happen and then two years into my term and then I lost my father at the hands of the Taliban, on November 5, 2020. They were sending me a message. Before they took my father’s life, they frequently informed me how much they disapproved of me and my position as a woman.
My father losing his life because of my path is my biggest and only regret. Losing him brings me more pain than anyone could imagine. The only thing that brings me peace around it is the conversations he and I had before he died about how he trusts me with my decisions.
I have no choice but to keep going forward. I keep standing strong.
Both joy and pain can fuel our determination in life. I appreciate your realness in this interview. I believe it shows even more of your strength and beauty.
I believe that when you share from the heart, everyone will understand you more.
Tell us about your determination to be educated as a young girl and when you discovered that would be a way to help save your life.
When I was a small girl, one of my family members, my paternal aunt’s husband, was a very good man and an ambassador. When I realized he was an ambassador, I started dreaming of being one when I was older.
I knew to achieve that, I needed to go to university and have a degree. So, I became obsessed with achieving an education. Being educated became my best weapon to support and uplift my community back home.
I believed that if I helped improve the education within the families, especially for a mother, she would never raise a child to be a terrorist. To show her boys that they don’t need to be a destroyer or someone who does terrible things to the community. I believe that an educated mother can raise a good child for society.
My focus and future campaigning for Afghanistan was for more ongoing education for girls and women.
After my term in office was abruptly ended due to the reinstated Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2021, I felt like I still needed to learn and pursue a master’s degree in human rights and economics.
What is the main driving force for you to be free of limitations and to acquire independence for yourself and other women?
This is a tough question to answer because, especially in a place like Afghanistan, it doesn’t matter how big the title is for your family or how open-minded you and your family are. It’s the community that will put you in a cage.
Even in a brief moment when my environment appeared to be accepting of the degrading circumstances, there was always an overwhelming sense of being surrounded by hopeful whispers praying for change.
When I look back, that was the start of my driving force. And I made it my life’s mission to turn up the volume on those whispers and turn them into a voice that is to be heard loudly and clearly by all women who are imprisoned in any circumstance.
What do you believe are your strengths as a woman?
Sometimes I feel as if there are two of me in one body. I am clear on who I am; I am friendly and direct, and I stay committed to my values, but at the same time, the other part of me is so emotional and I can easily feel my heart being punched.
But most of all, believing that I have no limitations in or around my life is my ultimate strength!
What inspires you every day?
The biggest inspiration for everything around my life is the lives of the women around me, starting with my maternal grandmother.
My grandmother is a wonderful and strong lady. She was 27 when she became a widow. She had five children and was six months pregnant with her last child when my grandfather died. He was a principal of a school, when the Mujahidin kidnapped him and all the other teachers, killed them, and threw them into a river. The reasons for why they did this, to this day, are still unknown.
My grandmother, from that day, started only living for her children. She raised three sons and three daughters with love, courage, and determination, and she made sure that every one of her children was educated to create good lives for themselves.
If you sit with my grandmother today and have a conversation, you will believe that she has a master’s degree, but she has never been to school.
She’s a remarkable woman with such electricity! She educated herself to this level in an era with life-threatening consequences if her pursuit of learning were discovered.
There was no internet, no facilities, and no resources. She did this on her own and tackled all life’s challenges by being just a woman with a fierce and determined belief in having a better life.
All women in Afghanistan are symbols of incredible courage and determination because I have seen it in every community of the country. I feel I have a huge responsibility to keep the same values I have received from previous generations of women in my country.
What are you creating in 2023?
In 2023, I’m expecting my first child. I want to dedicate a good human being to the world, especially to my country and community.
I am also motivated to create a significant bridge between the Afghan community, Afghan women, and the world.
I am also completing my second book which is about the lives of Afghan women.
What is the best way for people to follow you and to keep updated with your mission?
My website is, www.zarifaghafari.com. People can also find me on Twitter,