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BPR Interviews: Azra Jafari

Azra Jafari served as the first female mayor in Afghanistan, after being appointed mayor of Nili by President Hamid Karzai in 2008. She is an author, constitutional jurist, newspaper editor, teacher, trained midwife, politician, and an advocate for women’s and refugee rights in Afghanistan. 

What inspired you early in your life to go against cultural norms and fight for what you believe in?

During the Soviet-Afghan War, my family sought refuge in Iran, as did many other Afghans trying to flee violence. It was a very hard time. The Iranian government placed numerous limitations on Afghan refugees. Afghan children were forbidden to attend public schools, were blocked from employment in most cases, and were looked down upon when visiting public areas. The Iranian government made it uncomfortably clear to Afghan refugees that we were not welcome in Iran. As a young girl, I asked my parents why we were treated this way. “Why,” I asked them, “was my father forbidden to work? Why couldn’t my brother travel from one Iranian city to another? Why couldn’t Afghan children go to school like Iranian children?” As a child and young woman, I witnessed widespread discrimination, which my father did his best to help me understand. My father brought me many books on Afghanistan’s history and culture. I would read the books, and then my father and I would discuss them. I was inspired by this. It was the beginning of my drive to learn about people and their civic and political needs and later, to find ways to improve people’s lives. This helped prepare me for facing challenges of ethnic and gender discrimination when I returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

What was your experience of growing up and attending high school in Iran as a refugee?

In Iran, I attempted to go to school, but it was illegal for refugees to attend Iranian schools. Many, many students couldn’t go to a refugee school — or even a refugee high school — because they didn’t have United Nations identification. I had UN identification because I was one of the initial refugees in Iran, but soon after I arrived they stopped issuing official refugee status to those fleeing Afghanistan. All refugees that came after that time did not get an identity card and, because of that, could not attend school.

What led you to later open up a school for refugee children in Iran? What were the difficulties you faced in building and opening the school?

I was frustrated that many unregistered refugee children around me were unable to go to school. When you are a refugee, you don’t have any rights as a human — not even the right to work, go to school, or participate in any other kind of societal activities. So naturally, establishing a school was also illegal. I created the school with some friends when we were in the tenth grade. We started in our home with 5 to 10 students at first, and then other families asked us to teach their children. Soon we had no space, and the families combined their money to rent a house and I managed the house as a school and started teaching students from first grade to ninth grade, because I was only in tenth grade and couldn’t teach past ninth grade. All supplies and resources were given by refugee families and the school continued for six years. Other cities saw and replicated the idea, with over 14 similar schools established by other Afghan refugees. During the year, we had several instances of trouble with the Iranian government, as the school was illegal. Sometimes the Iranians would close the school down, and we would reopen and continue later on. After six years, the school graduated more than 8,000 students. Now some of these students have continued their education and graduated from university and even gotten Master’s degrees and PhDs.

After the fall of the Taliban you returned to Kabul and participated in the Loya Jirga. Why were you invited, and what was the process like at the Loya Jirga? 

After the fall of the Taliban, I was invited back to Afghanistan as a refugee representative by the Swiss Peace Committee for an international conference in Kabul. I was appointed to this position because I was famous within the Afghan refugee community in Iran for struggling to improve refugee rights and fighting for childhood education. When I was at this conference, I was noticed by politicians and invited to the Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga is an elected committee of various leaders in Afghanistan — whether it be politicians, religious leaders, or, in my case, women —  that comes together at key moments in Afghan history to make major decisions. I was invited to represent Afghan refugees in the emergency Loya Jirga. As the primary legislative power in the transitional post-Taliban government, the main purpose of this emergency Loya Jirga was to select a president and create a new constitution. We selected Hamid Karzai as the transitional president, and after two years we had an election.

How did you become the first female mayor in Afghanistan? What is it that you did to secure a position that in all other cases has been reserved for men?

Growing up in war and then as a refugee, I was always faced with difficulties and always thought about how I could solve my problems, the problems of other women, and the problems of other refugees. Under the Taliban, women didn’t have any rights: not to go to school, not to work, and most definitely not to be a civil or social activist. As women, we had nothing. So when I came back to Afghanistan and participated in the Loya Jirga as a young woman — I think I was the youngest person at the Jirga — I was very active and made a presentation on how politics and the system of government affects women. I was part of the creation of Afghanistan’s new constitution. I worked for more than a year and a half on the process of researching what to include in the constitution and how to bring about positive change and how to include everyone’s ideas, including that of refugees still abroad. I was a part of this team of constitutional jurists, and I worked with them, so I became familiar to the people within Afghan politics and government. All of these things came together and I became a well-known person.

I thought that if I could be successful as a women’s activist and as a social activist, then why could I not be a mayor? A mayor is also a person who works for the welfare of people…However, women’s rights were still not widely accepted, even by parts of the new government. At first, I applied to be a mayor alongside four other men. After checking background, ability, and who was capable for the position, President Karzai appointed me as the mayor of Nili. This decision was also a positive point for the Afghan government, as they could use it to show international countries that support Afghanistan financially that they are trying to give opportunities to qualified women in high-key positions.

What were the initial challenges you faced in Nili? To what extent did being a woman affect your work within the community as mayor?

When I went to Nili, it was a newly-created city combining four old villages, and I was the first official mayor. The mayor before me was unofficially appointed by the governor of the province. This man was very corrupt and sold over 2,000 land parcels without documentation and provided no public services to the people. He often sold one land parcel several times to several people without documentation or actually giving out the land. Unfortunately, he took all the money and fled. When I arrived in Nili, I didn’t have an office to work in, I didn’t have a budget, and I didn’t have any staff. The previous unofficial mayor also left a bad reputation for the mayoral position. The people were very angry because they had lost their money and were not welcoming to me. I was also a woman. People did not trust that a woman could be a successful mayor. People always tend to trust things they can physically see clearly. They saw that I didn’t have an office, budget, or staff. How could I work? All these things came together and tried to break me down and it was a difficult situation. I thought I had to start and do something…But my salary was not even paid to me at the time because I did not have a budget. So I rented a house as an office with my own money.

What were some of your first moves as mayor?

According to municipal law in Afghanistan, the central government does not give the municipality any financial support. Each city is responsible for funding its own budget from revenues. At that time I didn’t even have one penny and, unfortunately, Nili was a new city lacking any revenue. I could not tell people that I did not have any money and therefore I could not work for them. I did not just come to be a placeholder mayor. No — I rented an office and found unpaid staff for six months. I told the staff, “Trust me, if you work hard and if you bring back trust to the community, we can raise revenues, and I can pay you. But first we need to provide the people services.” Our first services were garbage collection, street cleaning, and helping solve people’s individual problems.

What accomplishments are you most proud of during your time as mayor?

When I started my work as mayor of Nili, the city was a large, underdeveloped village. I had no office, no staff, and no budget. It was very challenging, but I was motivated to work hard to develop and improve conditions. I focused on improving infrastructure, public awareness, urban cultural awareness, and women’s rights. To begin accomplishing all this, I trained and established ten municipal school committees to help inform and educate the people of Nili about their rights and responsibilities as citizens. As a female, I worked to make women aware of their rights. I established the foundation for a more developed Nili by creating city development plans, planning and building an aircraft runway, distributing land for citizens to build homes to city codes and specifications, paving roads inside the city, building a public park, constructing a bus terminal and a new city business and marketplace, and developing numerous other projects.

What are the most critical needs for women in Afghanistan today?

More opportunities have come to women in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but many problems remain that need our attention. These include the fact that a huge number of girls still cannot go to school, domestic violence against women is very high, and that forced marriages and child marriages remain common. Access to health care is grossly inadequate, and for many women in Afghanistan, justice remains an unrealized dream. Afghanistan needs international support to provide all of its children with education that will, in time, bolster the nation’s economy, promote business development and management skills, and develop sound leadership principles. We have much work ahead of us, but I’m confident it can be accomplished.

You’ve already accomplished so much  what are your personal ambitions for the future? 

Humanity and philanthropy are very important to me. I will continue striving for humanity, now and in the future, to inspire others to make the world more peaceful and just.