Longing for Kabul

Afghanistan’s youngest female mayor opens up about leaving – and returning to – her homeland.

Photo: Insa Hagemann/laif/Redux
A woman with dark hair and dark eyes, wearing a white headscarf and a cream-colored ribbed knit top, looks at the camera.
Photo: Insa Hagemann/laif/Redux
A woman with dark hair and dark eyes, wearing a white headscarf and a cream-colored ribbed knit top, looks at the camera.
Photo: Insa Hagemann/laif/Redux

As the Taliban reclaimed power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Zarifa Ghafari watched footage of a plane taking off from the Kabul airport, unable to look away as civilians trying to hold onto the machinery dropped to the tarmac. The scene that came to symbolize the United States’ rushed evacuation underscored a deep desperation. For many residents of the capital, plummeting from the undercarriage of a plane was preferable to living under a conservative and vengeful insurgency. For Ghafari, Afghanistan’s youngest-ever female mayor and a public critic of the Taliban, their return threatened particularly dire consequences.

She recalls the scramble as Kabul fell in a new memoir, Zarifa: A Woman’s Battle in a Man’s World (out on October 11): her surprise rescue from the streets near her office by a cab driver who recognized her face. Her footrace through the city in high heels. Her frantic purchase of a long dress for camouflage in case she encountered a Taliban soldier who, before even identifying her as a public critic of the group, might peg her as a government employee. The days-long shuffle to move her family from safe house to safe house. Her obsessive rewatching of the airport clips. “Did they really think they would be able to cling for hours, in freezing temperatures, at high altitude?” she writes. “Did they know that they would die, and did they care?”

Ultimately, Ghafari found herself inside one of the departing planes. After getting her family and fiancé on four countries’ evacuation lists, a diplomat friend secured them all spots on a flight to Germany via Istanbul. She takes our Zoom call from the German apartment she shares with her fiancé, having just returned from engagements in Europe and the Toronto International Film Festival. Ghafari is doing press not only for her book, but also for In Her Hands, a recently released Netflix documentary about her life that was produced by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. Sitting at a desk in a corner of her home, wearing a black headscarf and red lipstick, she is lively but occasionally sounds tired, like when she recalls a rude line of questioning from a recent interview in Amsterdam. “‘Do you think you wearing this scarf could relate with Islamophobia? Why are you still wearing this scarf, living in Germany?’” she recounts. “My scarf is my business, none of your business. In my country, women are dying of hunger, poverty, so many harassments, human-rights abuses. Girls are not going to school. And you are sitting here taking ten minutes of my interview time talking just about the scarf.”

These moments of frustration and indignation animate our conversation. When responding to criticism or offering her own, Ghafari speaks with her hands. She is frank when she talks about personal loss, in particular her departure from Afghanistan. She did not want to leave and insists the safety of her family is the only reason she ultimately did. In November 2020, anonymous gunmen shot and killed her father outside his home in an attack she believes the Taliban orchestrated. Having survived multiple assassination attempts herself, she feared staying put would place targets on her loved ones’ backs.

“I had to put all my personal emotions, feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my priorities in life aside and just look after my family responsibility,” she says of her exit. “That was so hard and it was so terrible,” not least because she felt she was watching the country she worked to build flip on its head. “Whenever you entered a shop, there was this shopkeeper knowing you, praising you for your work, loving you. And then everything is gone in an hour.”

Having lived through the Taliban’s first regime as a young girl, Ghafari, now 28, remembers in her memoir “reams of rules” and a “monochrome” existence in a capital without music or kites or card games, the streets littered with the carcasses of dead canaries now banned as pets. She recalls the burka her mother kept on a hook by the front door, and watching a woman get beaten in the street, ostensibly for showing a sliver of her foot.

Zarifa Ghafari works in her mayoral office in Maidan Shar in 2019. Photo: JIM HUYLEBROEK/The New York Times/Redux

Ghafari herself secretly attended an illegal basement school as a child, as women and girls were sidelined from education and encouraged to stay out of sight at home. As an adult and a rare Afghan woman working in a position of power, Ghafari spoke out against the Taliban — to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after the U.S. signed a peace deal with them in 2020, and in the media — making the stakes of their return both personal and pressing. Women’s rights activists who stayed have been abducted, detained, and tortured.

The decision to leave a country in the midst of a hostile takeover isn’t one that needs justifying, though for Ghafari, it represents an about-face. Since she became a public figure, Ghafari appeared to accept the possibility of a politically motivated death. “Afghan Town’s First Female Mayor Awaits Her Assassination,” is how the New York Times titled a 2019 profile of Ghafari, more than a year after she won her appointment — through a multi-round application and exam process rather than an election — to mayor of Maidan Shar in 2018. A few other women had served as governors and mayors in Afghanistan, but none in an area like Wardak, a conservative province bordering Kabul, where support for the Taliban ran high and women mostly remained at home.

For most of the first year after her victory, angry local men blocked Ghafari from starting the job. Some of them gathered in front of her office with sticks and rocks. The situation grew so frustrating that she ultimately threatened, in writing, to set herself on fire in front of the presidential palace. “If it’s happening to me and I keep silent,” she says of that intimidation campaign, then “tomorrow, it’s happening to someone else.” After her father’s murder and a few months before the Taliban’s takeover, she moved on from the mayorship to a position in the defense ministry. Though she maintains that she was ready to die for her country, she took a different view of the choice to leave Kabul. “I believe that staying alive for longer is best,” she tells me. “If you live longer, then you can change more.”

The change Ghafari wants to see in Afghanistan centers around educating girls and women, and in February 2022, she announced a return visit to Kabul and to the women’s vocational center and maternity clinic she’d opened remotely from Germany. Despite initial promises to respect women’s rights, the Taliban appears to have fallen back into old patterns. The regime bars girls from education past primary school and women from holding most jobs, leaving female heads of household little recourse to support themselves in the absence of a patriarch. A recent U.N. report suggests that only about 10 percent of Afghan women can cover basic health needs and mortality rates are trending upwards. Against that backdrop, while many observers praised Ghafari’s work, others accused her of cutting a deal with the Taliban in order to orchestrate the trip or maligned her for normalizing their rule.

“I don’t put that much value on the words of people who are sitting in coffee shops and writing something which they don’t know anything about,” she tells me. In her book, however, she notes that the comments that stung came from other women. Still, she asks: “If I don’t go, then who will?” A fair point, as is the desire simply to see your city, your family, your friends.

What may surprise the critics, as well as readers used to seeing the Taliban billed as a terrorist bogeyman, is Ghafari’s position on the group now. In her book, Ghafari remembers what she saw coming back to Kabul: girls carrying books in their arms, women on the streets occasionally “showing flashes of glamorous outfits beneath the long shawls they covered themselves with.” She observed traces of a government running efficiently, in contrast to the “corrupt and dysfunctional” system within which she worked, ultimately unpaid, for months. “Was this Taliban worse only in different ways than those who had been in power before?” she writes. “If so, then what did the battles I had been fighting my whole life mean?”

Ghafari sounds less conflicted in our conversation. The Taliban, she says, “are the killers of my dad.” But to her, narrowly focusing on the Taliban as an absolute evil seems to miss a larger point. The U.S. gave mujaheddin “warlords” a seat at the negotiating table upon ousting the Taliban in 2001, she points out, laundering bloody reputations into “respected” political careers. “There was no Taliban when mujaheddin stopped girls from school,” she says. “There was no Taliban when mujaheddin started raping women in groups.” Stretching back at least 60 years in Afghanistan, it’s “the same game, same policy, same strategies, same players,” as Ghafari sees it. “Black flag to white, white to green, green to black, this is the only thing.”

It’s the outside powers that Ghafari wants to see take accountability for terror in her country. She understands why residents of rural Afghanistan would take up with the Taliban after repeatedly losing loved ones to U.S. airstrikes. “I share the pain of 3,500 or 2,500 U.S. soldiers who have died these 20 years in Afghanistan, because they have been also part of these dirty games that you guys are playing,” she says. But Afghanistan lost nearly 50,000 civilians in a war it did not start. “If the international community paid money, we paid lives,” Ghafari says, adding: “They burned this fire and now they close their own doors.”

Going forward, she says she wants to focus more on her home country’s people than its politics. “When I came out of Afghanistan, for more than six, seven months, I was traveling everywhere, I was speaking everywhere and I was like, ‘International community needs to do this. We ask the international community to do this.’ ‘International community, international community.’ And then I realized that there’s no international community listening to my voice,” she explains. “It gives you a feeling of totally being disconnected to the world you are living in.”

She wants to go back to the country as soon as she gets a break in her schedule, this time for a longer stay. At her center, she says, “We are doing something. I don’t care that people could label me with ‘whitewashing the Taliban.’” As a mayor, she continues, “I was serving my people.” The government may now belong to the group she spent her career railing against, but her people are right where she left them.

She Could Handle Death Threats. Leaving Her Home Was Harder.