Book Review: Zarifa Ghafari's Memoir Is a Story of Resistance Against All Odds

'Zarifa: A Woman’s Battle in a Man's World' recounts the tumultuous events that shaped Afghanistan in the last 30 years through the eyes of Afghanistan's first woman mayor.

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If only the Americans had paid heed to Zarifa…

When Zarifa Ghafari was born in 1994, Afghanistan was torn by civil war; gunfire and mortar strikes echoed in the distance as she emerged. Raised during the Taliban’s first regime, she came of age post-2001 – when the US propped up a supposedly democratic government after ousting the Taliban to “avenge 9/11”. Zarifa was a fearless fighter. This trait sent her to dizzying heights where Afghan women are not easily found. It also caused her numerous problems, eventually forcing her to flee her country after the Taliban victory last year.

The daughter of a soldier who served equally well in all power centres in Kabul, Zarifa revealed her leadership qualities while in school. Taken to Kabul in 2005 to meet Hamid Karzai, the 11-year-old girl stood up and complained to the president about the lack of roads in her town and the absence of English and computer classes in her school. As everyone stared in disbelief, she asked why he made a hasty retreat in his helicopter a year earlier when he was to visit Patkia where she and other students waited to receive him. Karzai apologised for his conduct, invited her to the stage, gave her 500 Afghani from his pocket, and later sent her a certificate and a medal.

Little Zarifa turned into an instant celebrity as the interaction was nationally televised.

Former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai

Unlike scores of Afghans, Zarifa was also incredibly lucky. She escaped with minor injuries in 2005 when a suicide bomber struck Kabul when she was on her way to school. The next year, she was close to the site of another suicide bombing in Kabul. This time, she fractured her skull in three places and shrapnel gouged chunks out of her skin. Mercifully she survived. The father forbade her from going to school. But she did so stealthily, only to be caught and thrashed by her father.

When she finished school, she won a place at a university in Khost. But her father would not let her go. In any case, Khost bordered Pakistan and was a hotbed of Taliban insurgency. She got into teaching in Kabul, and soon won a scholarship to study at the Panjab University in Chandigarh. Her family backed her move, and a reluctant dad gave in.

Zarifa is full of praise for Panjab University and fellow students, both Indians and non-Indians. She remained in traditional Afghan clothes initially and then slowly embraced jeans, T-shirts and blazers.

“It was a revelation. I felt free to move, no longer consumed with worries about what might be showing or what I might trip over.”

She signed up for another two years of a master’s course on full scholarship. Students in Chandigarh backed her when she organised protests against the horrific murder of a 27-year-old Afghan woman, Farkhunda Malikzada, on a Kabul street by a group of corrupt self-styled Islamists in 2015. She was 22 when she left India.

Zarifa then achieved the impossible: she not only began living on her own in Kabul but became the Mayor of Wardak, her home province. She had already opened a radio station to give voice to the country’s women. The Peghla FM station became a hit because it denounced widespread corruption. The Taliban, however, was not happy. When she applied to be the mayor, male chauvinists used social media to malign her. It needed Hamid Karzai’s intervention to overcome intense opposition by the corrupt to be the mayor – the first Afghan woman to hold the post.

As she came down hard on well-entrenched corruption, there were tremors in Wardak. While some were in awe of her, others wanted her exit. The women she met cursed the Taliban for heaping misery on them. The international media took notice of her. She met President Recep Erdogan of Turkey and senior officials in Sweden and India. Not everyone in Afghanistan was with her, but her image soared internationally.

The Taliban, which was mixed up with both the corrupt and drug dealers, tried to kill her – thrice. She survived all three attempts, partly due to luck and on one occasion, due to poor marksmanship. A frustrated Taliban shot dead her father. It was the first time Zarifa felt a part of her faith in humanity die.

Throughout the sprint of 2021, the Taliban began making rapid advances as it became clear that the US was set to quit Afghanistan. In her last days as mayor, Zarifa found it near impossible even to leave her office because of intense fighting. Offered a job in the defence ministry in Kabul, she gladly took it up – after two-and-a-half years in Wardak.

As the US withdrawal began, the Taliban made it to Kabul. The situation was too hot for Zarifa. The Taliban was enquiring about her. Amid the mad frenzy that accompanied the US defeat – camouflaged as a pullout, she and her family decided to quit Afghanistan, leaving behind everything they had earned over a long, long time. At the Kabul airport, which witnessed mayhem as thousands crowded for the few places on departing aircraft, the Taliban tried to seize her. Luck again saved her. A Turkish diplomat helped her and her family to board a plane; she finally made it to Germany, which offered her asylum.

But Zarifa was not done with Afghanistan, Taliban or no Taliban. In an audacious act, she flew back to Kabul in February 2022. Realising that Western sanctions had made life miserable for the masses in her country, she used money earned from speaking and awards to provide food to the poorest Afghan women, particularly widows. Bonn took a pledge from the Taliban that they would not harm Zarifa. The short visit ignited mixed feelings within her. The Taliban were now a fact. No foreign army would boot them out. And the Taliban would not change, particularly towards women.

Afghan women

Representational image. Afghan women stage protests, demanding equal rights and representation, September 7, 2021. Photo: Reuters/File.

This book is a vote against the Taliban and the radical Islam it pursues, and against the Americans who showed a dream to Afghans and then let them all down.

In April 2021, four months before everything crashed, Zarifa warned US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Kabul that the US was making a terrible blunder boosting the Taliban morale. She demanded to know what the US was doing to put pressure on Pakistan, which supplied oxygen to the Taliban. Blinken betrayed a complete misunderstanding of the unfolding catastrophe. Zarifa learnt that the US was abandoning her country, two decades after arriving with bombs and promises of democracy.

Afghanistan’s original Islamic traditions were a lively mix – a blend of Shia and the Hanafi version of Sunniism which offers one of the most liberal interpretations of the holy text besides Sufism. Two decades of Pakistan-backed turmoil turned Afghanistan’s beautiful culture into something perverse. So much so, that under the Taliban’s interpretation, even the sole of a woman’s foot could be sexualised.

The Taliban spoke against drugs but actively participated in their trade. It claimed to be virtuous but was as corrupt as anyone could be. And the Taliban preached an Islam alien to Zarifa and others. Yet, the US handed over Afghanistan on a platter to the Taliban – after waging war for two long decades, leaving tens of thousands dead and the country in shambles.

If only the Americans had listened to Zarifa…

M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.