Azra Jafari, Afghanistan’s first female mayor has made enormous strides in her tenure over the last four years. Jafari faced numerous obstacles when she took office in Nili in December 2008 after being appointed by President Hamid Karzai. She would be living in the most basic conditions, earning a monthly salary of only $76. Nili, a small town of approximately 40,000 people in the Daykundi region, was plagued by infrastructure problems.
“Anything that needed to be built in Nili, had to be built from scratch,” Jafari said. At the outset of her time in office, Jafari faced these issues with almost no financial support from the government in Afghanistan or international aid agencies.
However, Jafari’s biggest challenge has been overcoming the discriminationagainst her due to her gender. Afghanistan is an extremely male-dominated society. Under the Taliban, which ruled until 2001, women were banned from school and the workplace. Nili had never had a female official.
In an interview with The Guardian, Jafari recounted the interaction she had with a local mullah on her first few days in the position. He told her that the town would not accept her, would not “exploit her femininity in order to complete a few projects and influence [its] women.”
Nonetheless, Jafari has worked diligently to surmount these struggles. She travels regularly with her daughter between Nili and the capital city of Kabul to petition the government for money to improve the city. The two-day trek is highly perilous due to warfare and unsafe terrain.
Jafari has become respected by many in the town and has earned the nickname“Mr. Mayor.” The mullah who initially accosted her thanked her, saying, “If a man could do just half of what you’ve done here, our province will surely flourish.”
It is these types of perceptions of gender abilities that Jafari continues to struggle against. She explained that while scrutinizing attitudes may have shifted in her town, nationally they have not.
“There are plenty of men here with no ambition to work, who are bad at their jobs and over whom a lot of money has been wasted. Because they are men, no one really questions them and asks ‘as a man, how successful have you managed to be?’ But as the only female mayor among 180 others, the first question I’m always asked, wherever I am, is ‘show us what you’ve done for your people.'”
Jafari will continue working to improve Nili, and in doing so, hopefully sway the opinions of men in Afghanistan. “What I’ve really learned is that it makes no difference whether you are a man or a woman, what matters is that you do your work properly and you work hard and how seriously you take your responsibilities,” she said.
Jafari wants to inspire other women to follow her into positions of leadership. She believes that she has positively influenced the views of young women in Nili. “I’m like a template for women,” she said.