Death threats, assassination attempts and the murder of her father didn’t stop Zarifa Ghafari from doing her job as mayor of Maidan Shahr, Afghanistan. As the fundamentalist Taliban begins to regain power, and as violent attacks increase in her country in the wake of the U.S. announcement it is withdrawing nearly all troops after nearly 20 years, she’s vowing that will not stop her, either. “For more than 60 years, men have had all the opportunities, but they haven’t succeeded or found solutions for ongoing conflicts,” Ghafari says. “I’m so confident that we, as women, can do better than anyone else.”
Now in her third year of running a town in Maidan Wardak, a conservative province of 900,000 people 24 miles from the capital Kabul, 27-year old Ghafari is Afghanistan’s youngest mayor and one of very few women to hold such a post.
Growing up against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, she became intimately familiar with the struggles women and girls face, recounting the disruption and devastation caused by terrorist attacks during her daily commute to school. She was only 7 when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001, ousting the Taliban government and beginning a grueling, years-long conflict with insurgents. In Maidan Wardak, she started her own women’s rights NGO focused on empowering women economically through vocational training and workshops in 2014, and the following year, started a radio station called Peghla FM, taking its name from the Pashto word for “young girl” and focusing on educational programs. “Being a woman in my country means living a life that is really full of difficulties, where everything is judged by gender,” she says.
Ghafari studied economics at college in India, and hadn’t initially thought of going into politics. But after encouragement from her friends and her fiance, she applied for the mayoral role in Maidan Shahr when the position was announced in 2017. Discovering that she was overwhelmingly outnumbered by male candidates only reinforced what she already knew: that women are considered second-class in most fields in Afghanistan, even beyond politics. That simply motivated her more. “I wanted to prove that this is not normal, and that we need a change,” she says. “We are also part of the society.”
Ghafari’s appointment by Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani (mayors in the country are appointed, not elected) was met with protests and challenges by local politicians, which prevented her from taking office for nine months. She says her critics derided her age and gender and claimed they excluded her from taking on the responsibility of running the local government. Ghafari’s parents even suggested she stop fighting for the job, because the opposition wore on for so many months. When she was finally instated—following the resignation of Maidan Wardak’s governor, her key opponent, and a social media campaign— she got to work. She fired officials in an effort to weed out corruption, embarked on urban planning and environmental projects, and created plans for new children’s play areas and women-only marketplaces. “It is and it always was for me to try to prove the power of women, to prove the ability of women,” she says.
Her success has come at great personal cost. Shortly after returning home from receiving the U.S. State Department’s International Woman of Courage Award in March 2020, Ghafari survived an assassination attempt in Kabul during which gunmen fired on her car. In total, she’s faced three attempts on her life, which she attributes to the Taliban. Last November, her father, an Afghan Army colonel, was murdered in front of his house in Kabul. “When they understood they couldn’t kill me, they killed my dad,” she says during the first Eid celebrations since his death. “It was my dad’s dream too, that I stand my ground.”
Violence and insecurity has only increased in the wake of the Biden Administration’s announcement April 14 that American and allied troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11—the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., which sparked the U.S.-led invasion. .
The U.S. move has raised fears that the fragile rights of women and girls in the country are in peril. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, women and girls were almost entirely forbidden from going to school or working outside the home. Observers say the U.S. withdrawal could lead to the Taliban regaining power, either through a political deal or by military force. The Islamic fundamentalist group has already reversed hard-won freedoms in large swaths of the country where it has taken control—imposing restrictions on how girls and women dress and behave, what they can learn and where they can work. A recently declassified U.S. National Intelligence Council report suggested that even if the Taliban does not take over power, there could still be backsliding on the already uneven progress made over the last two decades.
Days before Ghafari spoke to TIME in May, a bombing targeting a girls’ school in Kabul killed more than 80 people, mostly young students, and injured more than 140. For Ghafari, the attack shows that the new danger to women and girls is all-too clear. “They can’t leave us to fight, to lose lives, lose hope, lose opportunities. I wish the international community at least sees the ongoing situation,” she says. “We also desire a good life, we deserve a peaceful life.”
The attack on the school also sparked Ghafari’s memories of her own family’s tragedy. “I remember my mom’s shouts and cries. I remember my sister’s cries. I remember my brother’s tears, their pain. I remember how hard it is to still live and be here in this country,” she says.
But she remains hopeful, and proud to represent a generation of young women in her country, dreaming of a better life for her younger sisters. And beyond that, she wants to simply live a normal life, free of threats. “I’m excited for my life’s best moments,” she says. “What makes me more powerful, what keeps me brave, is my confidence and commitment. That’s why I’m still here, I’m still doing my job.”