In a country with a notoriously poor record on women’s rights, there is one woman who is showing the naysayers who’s boss. In December 2008, Azra Jafari became the mayor of the Afghan town of Nili. This appointment made Jafari the very first and only female mayor in Afghanistan. Once her ambition for this position had been achieved and this groundbreaking day had passed, the real struggle had only just begun. What followed would prove to be the beginning of an uphill battle for Jafari to prove to the men and women in her city and country that women are capable of being strong political leaders.
In the beginning of her time as mayor, the remote town of Nili was impoverished and in desperate need of the most basic infrastructure. Many things that most of us take for granted, such as roads, libraries, schools and jobs were almost nonexistent when Jafari first came to town. Nili is located in the province of Dai Kundi (sometimes spelled Daykundi), a safe province surrounded by mountains. While safe is good, Jafari also has noted that because of this the area is less likely to receive financial help from international aid organizations and the government compared to areas with higher instability.
Jafari told Reuters:
“I was very happy to get this job, especially being the first woman to be a mayor in Afghanistan, but there are some men who think a woman couldn’t do this job. Unfortunately, Afghan society has not yet become a society which can accept that women are able to do this job, like any other person.”
Jafari did not come from a family of wealth or connections to powerful individuals. Jafari lived as a refugee in Iran for a number of years in order to escape from the Taliban in Afghanistan where women were banned from schools and workplaces under their rule. It was in Iran that Jafari received an education. She became the Editor-In-Chief of a social and cultural publication, and was an officer of the Refugee’s Cultural Centre in Iran where she established an elementary school for Afghans living in Iran.
Becoming a female political leader has not been the first time Jafari has made strides in the fight for women’s equality. In 2001, after the United States invaded Afghanistan, Jafari returned to the country in desperate need of parliamentary strength and quality leaders. She joined the Emergency Loya Jirga in Kabul, a three hundred year old consultative council, where she organized a seminar for women and participated in the election process that led to President Karzai becoming the new leader. Before the Western-backed Karzai administration declared Jafari the country’s first female mayor, she was the head of a human rights organization that was separate from the government and focused on the rights of women and keeping peace in Central Asia. She has also written several books that focuses on these issues.
Balancing all of this on her impressive resume, Jafari is also a wife and mother. She took the job knowing how little the pay was and how large the job of developing this town was going to be. Twice a month she takes her young daughter and commutes between her mayor’s office in Nili and the capital city of Kabul. She has to go to Kabul in order to encourage the government officials to send money to her community. The journey takes two days where she has to pass through an area with high levels of insecurity. Once she was even caught in a gunfight between Afghan forces and insurgents during the journey. She has talked about the security risks of her job but her dedication to improve life for Afghans overrides any potential fear she may have.
In the early days of her post, Jafari noted how troubling the position of women in the society of Afghanistan was to her, and she came to the conclusion that things were actually getting worse, not better. She told The Guardian that when she first took office, a powerful mullah (Muslim scholar) came to visit her in her office and told her that Nili would not accept a female mayor, especially one that was only coming into town to “complete a few projects and influence our women.” But three short months later, he came back to Jafari and thanked her. “If I could just do half of what you have done here,” he said to her, “our province would surely flourish.”
Despite being an inspiration to women not only in Afghanistan but across the world, Jafari has said that all she wants is to do this job well. Not because she is a woman and has something to prove, but simply because she wants to help make her country a better place.