2022 Women’s Rights Award with Zarifa Ghafari, Melissa Mahtani

Full Transcript

Moderator: I want to ask you, you served as Afghanistan’s youngest female mayor. But what made you run for mayor in the first place?

Zarifa Ghafari: Thank you so much. Actually, first of all, I think if you believe in yourself, if you believe you’re doing right, it doesn’t matter what and how, you will definitely follow your path. Secondly, it’s about, you know, your work, will make changes. And you know, you believe that it’s something that the people will definitely defend it and want it. And especially in my country, I believe that the people of my country are really terrified by men’s leadership. So I thought they need women leaders to prove them, that they can be changed. They can change so many things if they have the opportunity.

Moderator: So I want to clear up a little bit of confusion here. It’s widely reported that you were 26 when you became mayor, becoming the youngest, but actually, you were 24. Right?

Zarifa Ghafari: Yeah. Actually I’m born the 25th of September 1994. But due to the advanced son’s educational law and procedures, you have to be at least 17 to go university entrance exam. But I was 15 When I graduated from school, so I had to have my national ID card by 17 years old. Because in most Asian countries and countries like Afghanistan, you don’t need to have a birth certificate exactly. Like you can have a date and have your national ID card. So I did like that. And yeah, I was 24 when I got appointed, and I am right now 27. But it feels great. You know, when people think I’m 30, I have something in my heart like no man, I’m 28. 

Moderator: Well, you were even younger than most people thought you were which is admirable, but, so you’re 24 years old, and you turn up, you want to go to work, it took you 10 months before you were actually able to take up your appointment as mayor. And we heard how there were locals who were protesting throwing stones at you trying to kill you. And you’re 24 years old, weren’t you scared?

Zarifa Ghafari: Actually we have a normal saying in our language, a kind of phrase, that if you’re turning around a big problem, and you’re just witnessing it from so far away, and not hugging it, then that really hurts you. But if you hug it, then, you know, that’s something that you can control somehow. So I think, you know, for me the problems started more before that. While going to school I was injured four times, in the cases of several attacks that were happening on my way to school, to different offices, and to governmental places, and I was attacked.

Moderator: Attacks against you specifically? 

Zarifa Ghafari: No, not me. But it was like public attacks and stuff happening, but I was injured. So for me, it was not new, and most importantly, to risk your life for something that you believe that really works, I don’t think it’s something wasted. And, most importantly, I believe always, that we live and we are born to die someday. It’s the fact of the life and the reality of the world. But it’s more better to die on a battlefield for good human causes, for a perfect world, than die in a hospital. I always believe in that. But at the same time, living for a cause always makes you champion, but dying for a cause will make you part of memory and history. I don’t want to be part of memory and history for a long time. I’m not trying to be so selfish. But yeah, I want to make people believe in their powers and see for themselves that if they try they can definitely do. So taking this risk was something that I thought its needed. You know, we need to show something different.

Moderator: And indeed you did. You took up your appointment despite the intimidation, you turned up and you served as mayor two and a half years, what are some of the proudest achievements of your time as mayor?

Zarifa Ghafari: Actually on 26st of February, just a month ago, I was back home in Kabul after fleeing. Going there, I went to a far flung village. And there I had a meeting where the elders of this village and these men, the elders were waiting for three days for meeting me in that village. While I believe these men would never sit with their wives and mothers and daughters to talk to them, but they were waiting for me to talk to me, when I went and sit with them and started talking to them. They were asking me to help them with building a school building, a high school building for girls in their village. And it was seriously amazing for me that one of them was telling me that we want our daughters as well to become like you so she can help her family and the rest of her villagers. So I think this was what I won. I think this is the achievement, I believe this is the achievement. 

The second way to, exactly make changes in the mentality of those people who I was working with in the municipality office where starting they were abandoning me and rejecting recognizing me, but later on, the day I left my office on 9th of June 2021, I left the municipality office, and trust me, people were crying. I have the videos and all. I think this was the moment that they were believing in woman leaders. And I think that change was worth any kind of risk. 

Moderator: That is incredible, men went from trying to kill you, or stone you, or at least you know, even the nonviolent ones were protesting and now they’re asking for your help. I just want to clarify the people who were asking you for help were not part of the government.

Zarifa Ghafari: Actually the ones who were protesting against me were from the local government, they were from the central government. And one of the guys who was the key person for these protests, his brother was an advisor to the President. He himself was working with the peace negotiation ministry, there was a ministry for peace. And at the same time these protestors were being fed by a former acting mayor, the one who couldn’t succeed in competition with me. So he was feeding these guys by money. And at the same time, the governor of the province himself. So yeah, too many people were involved.

Moderator: So you mentioned you went back to Afghanistan in February. What was it like for you to see conditions on the ground? Considering you had worked so hard to make your city a better place, What was it like going there now?

Zarifa Ghafari: You know, it’s so hard when you’re building a building of 10-15 floors, and then you’re on the first floor, seeing all these floors just suddenly broken down one by one. Then just to save your family’s lives, you have to, you know, you need to take them out and you are also out because of them. And from that outside, you’re seeing this building that you were part of building it, is just gone. It’s so hard. I went back to Kabul, I saw so many frustrating things. I saw people selling their kids on the streets, I saw people selling their body parts. I saw people selling their house materials, like poverty, the human rights crisis, the media there were already abandoning them, the abuses of freedom of speech, and the journalists, the activists, the kidnaps of woman activists, the arrests of so many men activists for example, Azim Azimi, the guy who was protesting against Pakistan’s interferences in my country, he was taken to prison by the Taliban and he is still missing, and we don’t know his whereabouts. 

At the same time, the teachers, the doctors, the most intellectual and educated people have all already left the country. They just left the country. And now I believe just because of the ban on the girls in school, there will be a big amount of people leaving the country because now the Afghan people they don’t want their daughters to be raised uneducated. 

So the situation is really worse. The public services offices are closed, and they are not able to function. The government is not functioning, the genocide, the brutal killings, the kidnaps, everything is happening in that country, but it’s not coming out because there is no media focus in Afghanistan right now. And the ones who inside the country, they’re also in control of the Taliban and they are also imposing the ban on media. Media, TVs, and radios are not allowed to publish women’s songs. They are not allowed to play music, they are not allowed to have free speeches. Previously, we had some activists coming to media and having interviews, but they were just taken away by the Taliban presence. So at the same time, the healthcare services for women especially, like, primary care like maternity health care services, are just drying up. So everything is just a mess. 

I saw girls going to university to Kabul University the day after when I went to Kabul, but this, you know, I was so happy for that, you know, it was a great thing happening to me seeing that. But just in the corner of that I saw a big amount of women sitting just nearby a bakery, and they were begging just for one bread, and a big amount like 30-40 women. And this is like heart-breaking. As I say, I’m just witnessing my dreams being broken.

Moderator: You know, some people applauded you for going back. But some people have criticized you, saying that you are whitewashing the Taliban, you’re legitimizing them by having gone back, what do you say to your critics?

Zarifa Ghafari: First of all, I don’t think I will have something special to say for those people because I believe if you know nothing, and you’re making a statement this is always because of your immaturity, and because of your low level of knowledge and personality. So I think with that level of people I don’t trouble myself to talk to them or give them an answer. But yeah, I will definitely say two words. 

First, the ones who are criticizing my life, my personality, the attacks on me, the attacks on my dad, and about the murder of my dad and everything around my life: Please wear my shoes and walk my way. Just for one day. If you do, if you dare, I will definitely answer all your words.

Secondly, when I went back to Afghanistan I risked my life. It was not easy. I risked my life. And I am not sure anyone is ready to do it that way. I did. But I went there and it worked so well. The news is out.

I always say if someone has proof of me making a deal with the Taliban or whitewashing the Taliban, okay, come forward with it. I’m so much braver then so many men of my country, I will definitely make myself accountable. But if its not like that, I’m showing the word no, I’m not afraid of that. So when I’m not afraid of that, whatever is coming next, I will put the judgment in front of the world’s people. If anyone thinks I need to be accountable, definitely I will. I will be. I will be.

Moderator: You are certainly very brave. You know you’ve been such a role model you’ve done so much in terms of really paving the way for women when they said it couldn’t be done. If the Taliban were to now reach out to you and offer you a job in government, would you take it?

Zarifa Ghafari: I have never worked for person in government. Some of my critics are posting like “Zarifa Ghafari was a team member of the former President. So that’s why now she somehow went to Kabul to lobby the Taliban”. But man, if I was a team member for the President, then I would not have had nine months in trouble with my own entrance to my office. The office that I won while competing with 138 candidates for that position. It was hard. I won it. But I still wasn’t able to get in. So it means that I never went for any special governmental system. I worked as a mayor previously in government to serve my people, and to be the voice of my people, especially to prove woman’s power and leadership. And if right now, also, if the people of my country next time, whenever we have a legitimate, properly, equally, well qualified, and well-settled government in Afghanistan, and then the people of my country, in particular women, want me to be their voices inside the government. Why not? I would love to, I would love to do it. But right now, I have nothing in my mind for that, because I think I just need some time to at least get free and relieved with the horrors that happened to me by working inside the government, especially the loss of my dad, I think I need a longer time to get over the pain. And then once again, get ready for that all.

Moderator: But it’s not like you’re stopping work, you still have a humanitarian foundation that you’re using, and you’re using this now to help women in your country. Tell people a little bit about what you’re doing there.

Zarifa Ghafari: Yep. I during my master’s degree education in India, I just founded in 2014, an organization in Afghanistan. That organization called Assistance and Promotion for Afghan Woman Organization where the focused goal is education and self-empowerment. And nearly we added the health care services as well within this. So after founding this organization, I had some stuff by my own. And then I went to governmental offices, and then I couldn’t follow up with the organization. The day I fled from Afghanistan on 22nd of August, I arrived in Germany, it was the first ever thing on my mind to start back this organization. Because I thought this is the most important thing that I can do. We work so hard, and within two months, we could start our first-ever center for women in Kabul in the capital of Afghanistan, where we are delivering free educational and vocational training for women, for 60 a woman at a time. Within this vocational training, we have two classes of tailoring and handicrafts trainings, that altogether there are 90 girls or women studying in these classes. And we have a free maternity health care services center, where we are delivering free maternity health care services from medicine to laboratory checks, ultrasound, doctor checkups, anything for free. And I’m so happy that within the first two months, we could treat more than 800 needy women in this free maternity health care center. 

I did this for sometime. The money or the donations for these activities first came from crowdfunding under my name, I started crowdfunding and that was also not going the way I wanted it, but still, it helped me and then some of my cash prizes. And finally, I sold out some of my gold jewelleries and whatever I had. The center is now its fifth month working in Kabul and we are planning to develop its activities to too many other places of the country or the provinces of the country. Because we believe most whenever we are talking about nowadays, educational stuff in Afghanistan, for woman, mostly people are talking about online education. But online education is not working in my country, it’s not exactly working. Because people who are not able to buy pen and paper or notebooks they are not able to buy internet packages, mobiles, laptops or maybe whatever else to have that online classes. So the only best way is to provide them these classes of education, vocational track classes, inside their own societies, by their own people in support of their own community. So this is what we are doing in Kabul.

And this is also why I started because after being in Germany, I started learning and researching about the situation, then I realized that the most important thing to a woman is education, health, and money. If you’re a self-financed woman, then you have all your rights. Granted, if you are educated, then you have everything already knowing about what you want. And then finally, if you’re satisfied, your health is okay, you have your health facilities and services in your reach, then definitely you’re a proper human being to fight for anything around you. So we started these centers now and at the same time we are providing aid packages and food packages to widows. Most focus of my life has been to widows because I am a daughter of a widow, my mom is but my mom had me and at least as an elder daughter to take care of the rest of the siblings and my mom. But there are so many more widows in my country, millions of widows in my country that have no one. So I think it will be great if I could do something for them.

Moderators: It’s absolutely great. You are such a role model to so many young women inside Afghanistan, the ones who can’t go to school, the ones who can, the ones who are now going to some of your centers, but also to other women all over the world for your courage and what you’ve done. What is your message to all of those young girls who are looking up to you, and looking to you for some direction today?

Zarifa Ghafari: First of all, before making my statement on this question, I’m really sorry, to all men sitting in this room and all the ones who are listening to me online. With due respect to all good men of the world. In my country. I’m also the daughter of a man who was badly proud of me and who was like, he was always telling me that you are my prayer, you’re the only prayer of my life that God accepted. So I am I’m so proud of being such a man’s daughter. But so I mostly believe I, as a woman, as a girl, as a daughter, that we need to first believe in ourselves, promote ourselves, and educate ourselves. And let’s be unleashed and try to get the position of leadership in our own society and communities. Let’s be the leaders of our communities. Because I think the people of the world, and the countries are tired, tired of these horrible politics, horrible decisions, horrible leadership, horrible ideas and everything of the men leaders of our communities. This is the only thing I wish I could have so at least if my daughter comes next, this is like my wish for me. If I have a daughter next time, or maybe in the future, I want to see into her eyes with pride and tell her that girl the rise that you are enjoying it now, I was the fighter for that. And train her to be a leader. If you have your daughters, train them as leaders, train them, teach them and make them learn. Because the world needs peace. The world needs love. The world needs courage. The world needs humans. Lets teach our people, our daughters at least to be that and I think with this stuff, we women are so good on that because we women, We’re not terrorists, we woman were not part of destroying the world, we woman, at least in my country, we women are not Taliban, we women are not Daesh. Women did nothing to that country. And there are so many more examples around the world. So let’s be the leaders of our communities and take the lead before humanity dies and humanity feels ashamed of us as human beings.

Moderator: Do you think women’s rights can exist under the Taliban?

Zarifa Ghafari: They have no other option. If they don’t accept the facts of my country – I am just one example of the woman of my country. Just imagine if we are millions altogether, it will be so difficult for so many powers of the world to face us. Taliban are so small ones. And they have to accept this fast. If they are not accepting this fast, two things are happening. One, it’s sure that they cannot run this country and they cannot stay longer in that country. It doesn’t matter if America supports them or UK or Europe, it really doesn’t matter. This time will they will be kicked off, like in a very bad way that they will never be able to return back, if they are not accepting the facts of the country. And the woman of that country are the greatest facts of this country.

And secondly, they are paving another civil war in my country. But we woman I think there are so many more Zarifa’s in my country – millions of Zarifa’s in my country – who are very terrified with the death of their beloved ones. Who are not able to forget the pain, the shouts and the cries of their siblings, their moms, their loved ones. When they murdered my dad, I was in office and it was about 15 days, I was in trouble because of security staff coming home. And then when I was on my way, coming home, I receive this call that they shot my dad, and I called my mom, and asked is he alive? And the only response was no, he’s not. And you know, I wanted to go to the hospital I wanted to go and hug him so tight. Didn’t matter if he’s alive or not. But I wasn’t able to do that. Because I understood that if I’m doing that no one is here to take care of my mom and my siblings. So, you know, I was trying to show off how brave I am while I was broken into pieces inside me. Because now anymore I didn’t have that person who was proudly standing by my side and saying doesn’t matter who attacks you. Just go bravely. I trust you. And I think there’s more many millions like me in that country. We know the pain of war. We know how horrible it is. And by knowing that, I think we are not allowing another one in my country. We have these horrific pictures of Kabul airport on social media. And the news where people were falling down from planes like birds. They were human beings. They were not birds. We had this river, a small river in front of the airport gate, which was full of blood and the photos are still on social media and Google and everywhere. The river of blood. We are listening and hearing about it in books and in stories. But I saw it in my country in 2021. It’s horrible. We know what exactly is this horrific, terrible war, a stupid decision of stupid leaders of the world. So we are not allowing this to happen to our country once again. That’s why I’m really not afraid of what the Taliban are doing. They are just like kinda, you know, celebrating day by day their own deaths. That’s it.

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, please stand to congratulate Zarifa Ghafari. 

14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Speakers and Participants

Zarifa Ghafari

Youngest elected mayor in Afghanistan, survivor of three assassination attempts, forced into exile


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