Zarifa Ghafari’s memoir is a story of resistance against all odds
If only the Americans had paid attention to Zarifa…
When Zarifa Ghafari was born in 1994, Afghanistan was torn apart by civil war; gunfire and mortar rounds echoed in the distance as she emerged. Raised under the first Taliban regime, she came of age after 2001 – when the United States backed a supposedly democratic government after toppling the Taliban to “revenge 9/11”. Zarifa was a fearless fighter. This trait sent her to dizzying heights where Afghan women are not easy to find. It also caused her many problems, eventually forcing her to flee her country after the Taliban won last year.
The daughter of a soldier who served equally well in all the centers of power in Kabul, Zarifa revealed her leadership qualities at school. Taken to Kabul in 2005 to meet Hamid Karzai, the 11-year-old stood up and complained to the president about the lack of roads in her city and the lack of English and computer classes in his school. As everyone watched in disbelief, she asked why he had made a hasty retreat in his helicopter a year earlier when he was to visit Patkia where she and other students were waiting to receive him. Karzai apologized for her conduct, invited her on stage, gave her 500 Afghani out of his own pocket and then sent her a certificate and a medal.
Little Zarifa became an instant celebrity as the interaction was nationally televised.
Unlike dozens of Afghans, Zarifa was also incredibly lucky. She escaped with minor injuries in 2005 when a suicide bomber hit Kabul on her way to school. The following year, she was near the site of another suicide bombing in Kabul. This time she fractured her skull in three places and shrapnel ripped off pieces of her skin. Fortunately, she survived. The father forbade him to go to school. But she did it stealthily, only to be caught and beaten by her father.
Upon graduation, she got a place at a university in Khost. But her father wouldn’t let her go. In any case, Khost bordered Pakistan and was a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency. She started teaching in Kabul and soon won a scholarship to study at Punjab University in Chandigarh. His family supported his move, and a reluctant father relented.
Zarifa is full of praise for Punjab University and his fellow students, Indians and non-Indians alike. She initially remained dressed in traditional Afghan clothes, then slowly adopted jeans, t-shirts and blazers.
“It was an eye opener. I felt free to move, no longer worried about what might be shown or what I might trip over.
She signed up for two more years of master’s courses on a full scholarship. Students in Chandigarh supported her when she organized protests against the horrific murder of a 27-year-old Afghan woman, Farkhunda Malikzada, on a Kabul street by a group of self-proclaimed corrupt Islamists in 2015. She was 22 years old when she left India.
Zarifa then achieved the impossible: not only did she start living alone in Kabul, but she became mayor of Wardak, her native province. She had already opened a radio station to give voice to the women of the country. The Peghla FM station became a success because it exposed widespread corruption. The Taliban, however, were not happy. When she ran for mayor, machos took to social media to slander her. It took the intervention of Hamid Karzai to overcome intense opposition from the corrupt mayor – the first Afghan woman to hold the post.
As she pounded on entrenched corruption, there were tremors in Wardak. While some were in awe of her, others wanted her out. The women she met cursed the Taliban for inflicting misery on them. The international media took notice. She met with Turkish President Recep Erdogan and senior Swedish and Indian officials. Not everyone in Afghanistan was with her, but her image soared internationally.
The Taliban, who were mixed in with both the corrupt and the drug traffickers, tried to kill her – three times. She survived all three attempts, in part by luck and on one occasion, due to poor marksmanship. A frustrated Taliban shot his father dead. It was the first time that Zarifa felt part of his faith in humanity dying.
Throughout the 2021 sprint, the Taliban began to make rapid progress as it became clear that the United States was about to leave Afghanistan. During his final days as mayor, Zarifa found it nearly impossible to leave his office due to intense fighting. She was offered a job at the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, she gladly accepted – after two and a half years in Wardak.
At the start of the American withdrawal, the Taliban arrived in Kabul. The situation was too hot for Zarifa. The Taliban learned about her. Amid the mad frenzy that accompanied the US defeat – camouflaged in retreat, she and her family decided to leave Afghanistan, leaving behind everything they had earned for a long, long time. At Kabul airport, which witnessed chaos as thousands of people crowded for the few seats on departing planes, the Taliban tried to seize her. Luck saved her again. A Turkish diplomat helped her and her family onto a plane; she eventually made it to Germany, which offered her asylum.
But Zarifa was not done with Afghanistan, the Taliban or no Taliban. In a bold act, she returned to Kabul in February 2022. Realizing that Western sanctions had made life miserable for the masses of her country, she used the money earned from speaking and rewarding to provide food for women poorest Afghan women, especially widows. Bonn took a pledge from the Taliban that they would not harm Zarifa. The short visit ignited mixed feelings in her. The Taliban were now a fact. No foreign army would drive them out. And the Taliban would not change, especially vis-à-vis women.
This book is a vote against the Taliban and the radical Islam they pursue, and against the Americans who showed Afghans a dream and abandoned them all.
In April 2021, four months before it all fell apart, Zarifa warned US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kabul that the US was making a terrible blunder to boost Taliban morale. She demanded to know what the United States was doing to pressure Pakistan, which was supplying oxygen to the Taliban. Blinken betrayed a complete misunderstanding of the unfolding catastrophe. Zarifa learned that the United States was abandoning his country, two decades after he arrived with bombs and promises of democracy.
The original Islamic traditions of Afghanistan were a living mix – a mixture of Shia and Hanafi version of Sunnism which offers one of the most liberal interpretations of the holy text besides Sufism. Two decades of Pakistan-backed unrest has turned Afghanistan’s beautiful culture into something evil. So much so that, according to the Taliban’s interpretation, even the sole of a woman’s foot could be sexualized.
The Taliban have spoken out against drugs but have been actively involved in their trade. He claimed to be virtuous but was as corrupt as anyone could be. And the Taliban preached a foreign Islam to Zarifa and others. Yet the United States delivered Afghanistan on a platter to the Taliban – after waging war for two long decades, leaving tens of thousands dead and the country in ruins.
If only Americans had listened to Zarifa…
Mr. Narayan Swamy is a seasoned journalist.