Afghanistan’s youngest mayor, Zarifa Ghafari, talks to zenith about the importance of cleaning up local politics and how the fear of the Taliban stalks Afghans’ day-to-day lives.
zenith: You were selected as the mayor of the Afghan town of Maidan Shahr at the age of 26. How has your life changed since?
Zarifa Ghafari: Actually, I would really like to freely move around Afghanistan again. I want to talk and listen to everybody. I love romantic music, especially old songs. I can’t be disingenuous or false. How I am on the outside is how I am on the inside, and vice versa. I love shopping. My mother sometimes tells me: “You’re the mayor and you have to be especially careful about how you behave.” But I tell her: “After I come home from work, I want to be my true self.”
Weren’t you afraid of how unsafe the province is?
At the beginning, when the governor of the province was supposed to introduce me to the authorities, he told me that in the current situation it wasn’t good for a woman to leave the house. “If you were assassinated at work, it would look bad on all of us.” But then he said. “Let’s see how it goes.”
You were elected as mayor in July 2018. How did you approach the job?
When I began my work as mayor, I took a good look at the state of the mayor’s office. I assessed the provision of services and whether citizens were satisfied with the work of the authorities. I already had an idea about why they were dissatisfied. The local authorities were mostly under the control of about four or five individuals who claimed to represent the people. I then tried to foster people’s trust in their local government and involve them more in the decision-making process. People should be able to make their voices heard in local politics.
“We need the people here to be on our side if we are to be able to guarantee the minimum level of services”
How did you put this approach into action?
We started by establishing a citizens’ advisory council with one or two representatives from each district. The council convenes here in Madidan Shahr and the representatives relay the concerns of their respective communities.
Are you happy with the results?
Yes, because we’ve been able to convince people that we’re committed to improving public services and that we take their feedback very seriously. We need the people here to be on our side if we are to be able to guarantee the minimum level of services. When we started the “Green and Clean Maidan Shahr” campaign, I myself helped to clear up potato peelings in front of a shop. This stuck many as strange, some passers-by even made fun of it because they couldn’t quite believe it. When I visit the market today, I get very different looks.
How can you encourage more public participation?
Some of the village elders from the advisory council call me to ask what topic will be on the next meeting’s agenda. Most of the time all I have to do is post details about an upcoming council session on Facebook, and at least 20 to 30 people will turn up the next day without us having to send out invitations.
“I was able to receive university education, so I have many opportunities. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of them?”
How do you see your work on the ground in the context of a current political events in Afghanistan?
The world’s most sophisticated systems were not built overnight. Humans made them. Other countries have previously experienced all the political and economic problems which we see plaguing Afghanistan today. Every new generation has the chance to do better than the previous one. That’s why I think we need to make a start. I was able to receive university education, so I have many opportunities. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of them? Afghanistan is in this mess because we’ve always repeated our predecessors. If a child’s father is a farmer, the child will become a farmer too. I’m a free woman choosing my work. That’s something at least. Of course, I know a hundred or so other women who want to live and work like this.
In your opinion, how do people look back on the war and life under the Taliban’s rule? And how do they look to the future?
I can’t speak for 36 million Afghans. But what I can say is that when I was young, my father bought me some black trousers, a white shirt and a black scarf. I had a bob cut like the singer Googoosh. At least that’s what my mother thought.
Gogoosh, the Iranian pop icon of the 1970s and 1980s, was also popular in Afghanistan.
I remember one time when I was visiting some friends with my mother. I was maybe four or five years old, back when the country was under Taliban rule. When we left the house, I must have done something naughty, because my mother said to me: “If you don’t behave, I’ll call the Taliban. You’re wearing trousers and have short hair, so they will take you away and beat you.” Of course, my mother had only said that to make me behave. I was still very frightened.
“A generation or two will have to come of age and take over the helm”
Has this fear stayed with you?
It’s stuck with me because the situation in the country at the moment doesn’t allow us to move forward without fear. The war took my childhood, my brother, my father, my mother, and my dreams. And the war has also robbed our culture from us Afghans, and taken away the opportunity for us to enjoy our natural treasures, the thousands of beautiful mountains and waterfalls. Everywhere you go you are haunted by the fear that the Taliban or ISIS will get you.
Do you think that you and your generation will ever experience peace in Afghanistan?
The war affects everything, including education and agriculture. We’re afraid of what will happen when the USA and the international community eventually pull out of Afghanistan. Then we’re on our own. And we will have wasted so much time on war, which we should’ve used to develop infrastructure.
What does Afghanistan need to build a more peaceful future?
My generation was born into war and will probably continue living under war. A generation so affected by war cannot provide what is needed for Afghanistan to stand on its own. So a generation or two will have to come of age and take over the helm.
In 2018, Zarifa Ghafari, 26, was back home on holiday from India where she was studying business, when she took a civil service entrance exam, which had been introduced by President Ashraf Ghani. In March 2019 she was elected as the mayor of Maidan Shahr, a town of 35,000 inhabitants in central Afghanistan, around 40 km south of Kabul. In the province where the town is located, Maidan Wardak, 70% of people belong to different Pashtun clans, with others coming from the Tajik and Hazara minorities.