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.
“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.
She hopes to expand to other parts of the country in the coming months.
“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”.
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