“The Taliban cannot erase us, they can’t. This is not like the 1990s or before – they have to accept [women]. They have no other choice,” former Afghan politician and women’s rights activist Zarifa Ghafari tells CNN defiantly.
In 2018, at the tender age of 24 (though she admits she pretended to be two years older in order to qualify) Ghafari was appointed as one of just a few female mayors in Afghanistan. She then had to fight for months to be allowed to actually take up the position following protests from locals in the conservative city of Maidan Shahr.
Ghafari was finally able to start work in November 2019, almost a year after her appointment, but soon, as she tells CNN, she would endure constant harassment, intimidation and regular protests: crowds of angry men demonstrating outside her office, holding sticks and throwing stones.
She recalls walking into her office and everyone else walking out, as well as occasions when she would arrive at her office to a locked door, having to break the lock just to get in.
But the young Afghan official kept showing up and served as mayor for two and a half years.
“The more they ignored me, the more I got stronger; the more they rejected me, the more I got stronger; the more I saw how [they ridiculed] me for my gender, the more I got stronger,” she says.
“I was like: ‘I’m going to show you people, because whatever I have inside my head, it’s equally like you’”.
And Ghafari would succeed in changing some people’s attitudes. She says one of her fiercest critics told her years later that she had proved him wrong when he had told her she was nothing more than a little girl.
“I was able to show the power and the ability of women and to prove that we can do anything. I showed people that it doesn’t matter how many more times I get attacked, I will be still here because I think what I am doing is right,” she says.
But this was all before America withdrew its troops from Afghanistan last year and before the Taliban took control of the country. Initially, Ghafari had wanted to stay, but the situation on the ground got increasingly worse, she says. Her father was murdered in 2020 and she believed her own life was also at risk.
The last straw came in the summer of 2021 after she says armed men came to her home searching for her and brutally beat up her security guard. She had already survived multiple assassination attempts by the Taliban and knew leaving Afghanistan was the only way she could keep the rest of her family safe, so she fled in August 2021 making it out of the country by hiding in the footwell of a car.
Now living in Germany, Ghafari continues to raise her voice for the people of her homeland and uses her radio channel and humanitarian foundation – the Assistance and Promotion of Afghan Women organization – to advocate for women’s rights.
“I am under no illusions about the Taliban, but I am also aware that they will now be in power in Afghanistan for some years to come. The media has mostly focused on the Taliban, and how they will govern, but I am interested in the people and I believe that we must build, rather than sever, the bridge between the people of Afghanistan and the world,” she says.
In February, Ghafari went back to Kabul for the first time and says she was horrified to see how quickly conditions had deteriorated there and in nearby provinces.
“We have always had shocking poverty in Afghanistan, but now, even those who were middle class are struggling to survive. State employees have not received their salaries for months. As I drove around Kabul, I saw people standing by the side of the road and selling their household possessions,” she says.
The month before, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the “scale of the despair” as the UN launched its largest-ever humanitarian appeal for a single country, warning that “virtually every man, woman and child in Afghanistan could face acute poverty.”
Ghafari says her heart broke further when the Taliban went back on their much-anticipated promise to let girls above 6th grade return to school in March. In response, her organization is building a center in Kabul to provide basic tailoring, handcraft and secondary education classes to women as well as maternity care and general healthcare services.
She hopes to expand to other parts of the country in the coming months.
But Ghafari knows that her efforts alone are not enough. This week, as she accepted the Geneva summit for Human Right and Democracy’s 2022 International Women’s Rights Award, she urged the world to do something.
“I urge you to do everything you can to take our people out of this predicament, and to raise your voices in support of humanity. The solution is not for all just sitting and sending statements. We need action at least after seven months of darkness for men and women of my country,” she said in her acceptance speech at the UN.
“My country has been at war for 40 years. Achieving peace in a country that has been at war for decades is never easy. It often involves making distasteful choices and speaking with people you find abhorrent. And yet there is no other way. That is how peace was achieved in Northern Ireland and in Yugoslavia, and I believe it is the only way it can be achieved in Afghanistan,” she continued.
In addition to prioritizing human rights and women’s rights in any international talks with the Taliban, she asked world leaders to not close their doors to Afghans seeking safe shelter. Referencing the welcome many European countries are offering those fleeing war in Ukraine, Ghafari added: “Our blood is not different by colour from Ukrainians”.
Story of the week
From femicide to Islamophobia and pay inequality, feminists are calling on the next French president to invest in structural reforms that will benefit all women.
Women Behaving Badly: Rokhaya Diallo
Written by Adie Vanessa Offiong
While France proclaims its blindness to race, Rokhaya Diallo (1978), ensures the glaring existence of racial inequalities are known. She founded Les Indivisibles in 2007, an anti-racism organization which uses humour and irony to counter racial discriminations.
The French journalist, writer and activist is a driving force for minority rights, and racial, gender and religious equality.
Born to Muslim Senegalese and Gambian parents, Diallo grew up in La Courneuve, a diverse French suburb, where her color was never questioned. She got involved in local politics, presiding over La Courneuve’s Youth Council, and became actively involved with the anti-sexist organization, Mix-Cité.
The ‘where are you really from? question began when she started working in Paris, which was the moment Diallo realised that people perceived her differently.
Today, Diallo promotes equality and pluralism - a political philosophy that recognises diversity - through advocacy campaigns that promote racial and gender justice.
She queries the roles given to black actors on French screens in her 2020 documentary, Acting while Black: Blackness on French Screens and her book, Don’t mansplain me! (2020), reveals how male patterns make women invisible in society. She has also authored Racism: The Guide (2011) and France Belongs to Us (2012).
Diallo was ranked among the 28 most powerful people in Europe in 2021 and is also listed on the British Powerful Media list among the top 30 Black personalities in Europe. Her antiracism fight, earned her the Struggle against Racism and Discrimination award in 2012.
Other stories worth your time
- Ukrainian women escaped to give birth in a country free of war - CNN
- Iranian women denounce violence in film industry - Aljazeera
- The women sharing their memories of Ukraine before the war - BBC
- Balaclava fashion trend is ‘threatening to women’ - Guardian
- Women’s safety endangered by gender-based violence in Somaliland due to one of its worst droughts - Independent