Zarifa Ghafari

How Western documentary-makers are unwittingly supporting the divisive political agendas of Afghanistan’s Pashtun elite

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On 22nd August 2022, Netflix revealed the release date for a “Clinton-produced” documentary called ‘In Her Hands’ directed by Tamana Ayazi and Marcel Mettelsiefen. The documentary is about Zarifa Ghafari, an Afghan woman, who is presented as “Afghanistan’s first female mayor”, as claimed by HiddenLight Productions’ co-founders, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. It is commendable to see the achievements of women of Afghanistan are documented. However, there is an egregious example of misrepresentation: Ghafari is not the first female mayor in Afghanistan as depicted by this latest documentary and a number of other media outlets. 


Hillary Clinton Instagram promoting Zarifa Ghafari


It is unfortunate that Zarifa Ghafari presents herself to be the source of this false portrayal. She has presented herself as the “first female mayor of Afghanistan” and also is the youngest to be appointed at the age of 26 to gain major platforms and recognition abroad, and more importantly, taking credit for the audacity and sacrifice by other women trailblazers at home. On her official website, she promotes herself as a women’s right activist: “I will continue to work for the Afghan people, especially the women. It is important to create a worldwide movement in solidarity with women. […] I try to raise my voice and find all the unspoken words that women in Afghanistan can’t say now”. In addition, there are dozens of interviews, speaking engagements, articles, Australian media and now even a documentary, in which she has either introduced herself as the first female mayor or failed to correct the fact, which might indicate that she is either ignorant of the history or ignores other women trailblazers. Therefore, regardless of her motives, this misrepresentation is problematic on many levels. 


Zarifa Ghafari


First, let’s set the facts right: the first female mayor in Afghanistan’s post-2001 era is Azra Jafari (Twitter: @AzraJafari), who was appointed in December 2008 in Nili, Daikundi province when Zarifa was just 16 years old. According to Ms Jafari, she was forced to resign from her position in 2014 because of constant threats. Ms Jafari grew up in Iran as a refugee and returned to Afghanistan in 2002. She was appointed as mayor in December 2008. The second female mayor, Khadija Zahra Ahmadi, was also appointed in the city of Nili in 2018. Jafari and Ahmadi both belong to the Hazara community, Afghanistan’s  most persecuted ethnic group. 


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Ghafari was appointed as mayor of Maidan Shahr, Wardak province in 2019, over a decade after the first woman held this position. The documentary was produced by Hidden Light Production (founded by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sam Branson and Chelsea Clinton) working with Netflix, Propagate Content and Moon Dogs. They began producing this documentary in 2020 when Zarifa was still mayor. The question is, how did the media outlets and those involved in this project fail to fact-check her story before investing in and launching the project? The women of Afghanistan have already been victims of war and the pretext of War on Terror projects. Why should our history be presented in a fabricated and false way?

The manipulation of the story about the first women mayors in Afghanistan needs to be looked at through the lens of ethnic dominance. Azra Jafari, a Hazara woman who became the country’s first female mayor, was ignored while a different narrative was created to glorify an ethnic Pashtun woman. Considered as second class citizen, Hazaras have a long history of persecution, slavery, marginalization and oppression in Afghanistan at the hands of Pashtun rulers, governments, tribes and nomads, including the Taliban and ISKP who are predominantly Pashtuns. They also have a longstanding history of being eliminated from the official narrative of Afghanistan. 

This shows that the Hazara women in Afghanistan face increased challenges. The Hazara people only gained their constitutional rights in 2004 after the Taliban were ousted by the United States intervention. Although persecution and marginalization of the Hazaras continued after the fall of the Taliban, they were among the driving forces leading the democratisation movement in Afghanistan. Hazara women were the forerunners of participating in nation building as well as the reconstruction of Afghanistan post-2001. Not only is the first female mayor in Afghanistan a Hazara woman, but the first female Governor, the first Vice President of Afghanistan was Dr. Sima Samar, the first female Olympian and the first female idol to win the popular show ‘Afghan Star’ were also Hazaras. 


It is important to note that this is not the first time an effort has been made to eliminate Hazaras from the history of Afghanistan, where historical negationism and marginalisation are strongly practiced. In 2019, the Afghanistan Ministry of Education printed new school books for ‘culture’ with information on ‘the achievements of Afghan athletes’. In the textbook, they did not mention the name of the one and only Olympian, Rohullah Nikpai (a Hazara) who has won two medals for Afghanistan so far. They also failed to add his photograph and instead added pictures of two non-Hazara athletes. Another example of this crude yet systematic discrimination is the omission of the identity of Hazara victims from the monument for the victims of the Anglo-Afghan war in Dehmazang, Kabul. The identity of other ethnic groups is stated, but not that of Hazaras. Throughout the history of Afghanistan, there has been an ongoing systematic effort made to remove Hazaras from political, economic, social, and cultural fields by dominant ethnic groups, mainly Pashtuns.

This shows that Hillary Clinton, Netflix, One Young World and anyone who supports the narrative of Zarifa Ghafari’s as the “first female mayor”, whilst remaining silent on the Hazara women mayors who preceded her, are actively participating in the distortion of the history of women’s achievements in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns who have long ruled Afghanistan have been successful in making the world believe that they have the “right” to rule Afghanistan and presented the country according to their narrative whilst actively excluding other marginalized, excluded, vulnerable and persecuted ethnic groups like the Hazaras. However, in the 21st century, there are no justifications. Information is at the tip of our fingertips and fact-checking should be a basic part of journalistic standards when writing articles and commentary. The dominant Pashtun regime has a crude yet effective propaganda machine that perpetuates the effacement of Hazaras. For Western media to perpetuate these untruths in the information age is a reflection of a naïve desire to support a convenient story of women’s empowerment. Maybe the Clinton funders just wanted to help the cause of women, but they need to understand that they are perpetuating the exclusion of other religious and ethnics when they unquestioningly champion the ruling ethnicity. 

Azra Jafari and Khadija Zahra Ahmadi are both exemplary women who have not only experienced the challenge of working for women’s rights in Afghanistan, but have also suffered discrimination for being a Hazara, Shia and for championing democratic values, equality, inclusivity and human rights. If Western sponsors and Netflix are truly committed to female empowerment, it is of utmost importance that they first conduct fact-checking of information while ensuring that their platforms are given to women leaders and rights activists, particularly from the most marginalized religious communities and ethnicities, and start promoting inclusivity among Afghanistan’s women’s rights activists.

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