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Where 97 percent of the population lives on the threshold of starvation

Zarifa. A Woman's Battle in a Man's World
Forfatter: Zarifa Ghafari
Forlag: Virago Press, (London)
AFGHANISTAN / Zarifa Ghafari is on the BBC's list of the world's 100 most influential women. This Afghan mayor knows very well that she is a symbol – but perhaps most of all an attraction.


I am going back to Afghanistan. At the top of the list of places to visit and things to do is a name: Maidan Shahr. A city 96 kilometers from Kabul, an hour's drive away. The city that had the country's only female mayor. The youngest too. I wonder what it's like there now, I say to myself. Is there a better place to understand the Taliban? I ordered Zarifa Ghafari's biography.

Now that I've read it, I still want to travel, but now I want to understand Americans. To take it from the beginning: Despite everything I had read about her – and Ghafari's countless interviews with the BBC as well as the many awards for expulsion against her – I had not understood that Zharifa Ghafari was never elected, she was appointed. Like others mayors becomes. She was appointed by President Ashraf Ghani. He was not exactly popular, because when the Taliban took over Kabul, he ran away with a tail of ministers and advisers, as well as 884 million dollars. Ghafari was only 24 years old and had lived abroad for a long time; she studied in India. She is not from Maidan Shahr herself, but comes from Kabul and grew up in Gardez, on the border with Pakistan.

The mayor

As mayor, she did not move to Maidan Shahr, but stayed in Kabul.

Afghanistan appears to be a complicated country. But honestly, all over the world the same rules of the game apply in politics. You have to ask the question: What if this happened in my own country? When in a local election there are candidates who come from other places? But in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, Syria or Yemen, the local authorities are the same as a council of elders. Of the wise. Imagine that suddenly, tomorrow, the mayor where you live is replaced by a collection of elderly men with white beards and fluttering gowns...

She is more recognized abroad than at home.

Older men you've never seen before. Who has never lived in your city. Nor do they settle in the city. They have never had power or responsibility there, not so much as a janitorial job.

For the record, I am not defending those who for nine months prevented Zarifa Ghafari from entering the mayor's office by physically blocking the front door. Not at all. I respect Ghafari. As a child, she was not allowed to stay in the same room as men, and in the book, well deserved, there is a photograph in which she is not only in the same room as many men, but has the main role: She is the one who decides.

What little they got, they got from the Taliban

Ghafari attended secret schools: dark classrooms in cold basements because she was born in 1994 under Taliban rule. At that time, radio and television were prohibited. She entered the university in Khost and went to India, although her parents did not want her to live alone on campus. In India she had relatives. She had survived three assassination attempts.

Ghafari attended secret schools.

Ghafari's father was a colonel in the military, an army trained by NATO, and he was seen as a traitor and killed. It goes without saying, with such a background she deserves my respect and support. She tells a lot herself already on page 3, where she describes the area around Maidan Shahir – during 20 years the Afghans there did not get anything. Airstrikes only. And what little they got, they got from the Taliban. That's why they're back. Afghanistan is not that complicated.

Ghafari describes in the book that she is an important contradiction: She is more recognized abroad than at home. She is still struggling to get into the office, she is already a star, she is already on the BBC's list of the world's 100 most influential women and knows very well that she is a symbol – but perhaps most of all an attraction. An exotic voice, a different voice, perfect for gatherings around the world. Perfect for contributors. She believes that this is the way she can be heard. She wants to mean something. So she plays along. She believes that the United States is the champion of human rights. The United States – which came to Afghanistan in 2001, where one in three Afghans lived on the verge of starvation. But when the Americans left in 2021, one in two Afghans was on the verge of starvation.


Now the central bank's reserves have been frozen, so the entire banking system and the economy have come to a standstill. And 97 percent of the population lives on the threshold of starvation. Now one in every Afghan goes hungry.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have taken away women's rights.

On the day she was to take up the office of mayor, there was a notice attached to the gate to the municipal hall. She was not welcome. For three reasons: first, she lacked experience. Secondly, because she was not elected. Third, that she was not from Maidan Shadar. But I honestly haven't met a single Afghan on my travels there who didn't wish for a better country.

Translated by Iril Kolle. The book has been translated by Hannah Lucinda Smith.

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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