Zarifa Ghafari at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of In Her Hands.Image Unique Nicole/Getty Images

    The popularity of Zarifa Ghafari is paradoxical: while the Taliban increasingly exclude women from public life in Afghanistan, she is gaining international fame as a women’s rights activist. Her memoirs have been in bookstores since September and the Netflix documentary was released this month In her hands about the past two years in Ghafari’s life.

    Those were turbulent years, the low point being the violent takeover of power by the Taliban in August last year. Since then, the extremist movement has drastically curtailed women’s rights and freedoms: they are not allowed to travel without a male companion and are required to cover their faces in public. Secondary education for girls is prohibited and working or studying is also impossible for many Afghan women. Let alone that, like Ghafari, they hold a prominent position as mayor.

    A few days before the documentary was released in the Netherlands, the Taliban leadership ordered the full implementation of strict Islamic Sharia law. Amputations of limbs for thieves, stonings and public executions can therefore take place again in Afghanistan. In November, the Taliban already carried out public punishments at least twice for ‘moral crimes’, such as adultery. Thousands of spectators saw how three women and nine men were tortured in a football stadium.

    Secretly to school

    Ghafari has seen the rise, fall and resurgence of the Taliban in her short life. She was born in Kabul in September 1994, two years before the Taliban took power. She is the eldest of a large and wealthy family. In her autobiography, Ghafari recounts how as a young girl she was secretly educated in the basement of an apartment building: ‘When footsteps sounded outside, our teacher would call us to silence and gesture for us to hide our books under the rug.’ After the Americans invaded the country in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Taliban quickly withdrew from the cities. At the age of 7, Ghafari attended a public school for the first time.

    ‘Educating a girl or woman saves ten generations’ is Ghafari’s motto. Her own life serves as an example in public appearances, both at posh conferences with world leaders and at gatherings with illiterate men in the remote countryside of Afghanistan.

    Zarifa Ghafari’s career is impressive, especially for a 28-year-old. After studying economics at university in India, she started a radio station for women in the rural province of Wardak. She broadcast talk shows and reports in which women were central. The Taliban didn’t like that. The extremist movement pointed out the “heathen work” to her in a letter and demanded that she leave the region “within a week”.

    That threat did not stop her: she continued to broadcast and volunteered when the government started looking for new mayors. Former president Ashraf Ghani appointed her in 2018 as mayor of Maidan Shahr, a provincial capital 40 kilometers southwest of the capital Kabul. On her first day at work, extremists attacked her office with sticks and stones. She fled to Kabul. It was only after mediation by the president that she was finally able to take office nine months later as the first female mayor of the conservative province of Wardak.

    Corruption and litter

    She also became the youngest mayor in the country. In the three years that she held office, she fought against corruption and litter and campaigned for girls’ education. But with her growing influence as a women’s rights activist in the region, so did conservative backlash.

    During her tenure, Ghafari was the target of at least three attacks that she herself attributes to the Taliban. In one of the attacks, she suffered severe burns, including on her hands and feet. A gas cylinder in her house had been sabotaged. She survived the attacks, but her father was killed by gunmen in front of his home in Kabul in November 2020. He was a commander in the Afghan army and in recent years trained the elite unit that led the fight against the Taliban.

    After NATO announced its departure from Afghanistan early last year, the young mayor was forced to leave the province and give up her job. She went to work in Kabul for the Ministry of Defense. But when the capital also fell into the hands of the Taliban, she hastily fled the country with her family. They settled in Germany, where they received asylum.

    Farewell to Afghanistan was not final. After six months, Ghafari returned briefly to visit the aid organization she had set up before leaving and to show her solidarity with Afghan women. That the trip went well has everything to do with her newfound status as an activist in the spotlight. Seeking international recognition and financial support, the extremist Taliban now finds it more convenient to protect Ghafari than to kill her.

    3 X Zarifa Ghafari

    Her courage and commitment to women’s rights has been awarded several times internationally. In 2020, Ghafari received the International Women of Courage Award from the United States Department of State. A year earlier, the BBC placed her in a list of the hundred most inspiring and influential women in the world.

    Ghafari does not want to have the scars on her hands treated surgically (for now). They give her a sense of strength and remind her of the suffering of women in Afghanistan, she told CNN.

    As a child, Ghafari wanted to become an ambassador. Her aunt was married to a former Afghan ambassador to the United States.