The 2020 International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony was held at Washington DC on Wednesday to honor 12 extraordinary women from across the world. The all-female award presented ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday recognizes women across the world who demonstrate “exceptional courage and leadership” in the face of adversity and who have made a positive impact on their communities.
First lady Melania Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo honored recipients and delivered remarks to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of the brave women.
Among the 12 nominees was Afghanistan’s Zarifa Ghafari—the first ever female mayor of Maidan Shar, a conservative city in the Wardak province of Afghanistan where support for the Taliban is widespread.
Since the inception of this award in March 2007, the US Department of State has recognized 134 women from 73 countries. With the 2020 IWOC Awards, the total number has raised to 146 awardees from 77 countries.
The US State Department’s spokesperson’s office honored Ms. Ghafari as ‘woman of courage’
Hailing from Kabul, Ms. Zarifa Ghafari was honored for her courage at the US State Department on Wednesday. At 26, Zarifa Ghafari is one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors. She is the mayor of Maidan Shar, in conservative Wardak province.
The 26-year-old award winner thanked the United States for being the global leader of women’s empowerment while accepting her award.
“It was not so long ago that most women were considered property, and sadly, in some parts of the world, it is still the same,” Ghafari said. “Throughout the modern area, there has been one global leader in the fight for women’s rights, and that’s the United States of America. To the American people, to the American government, let me say: Thank you. Thank you for all you have done to improve conditions for women all around the world.”
Zarifa Ghafari of #Afghanistan is being honored for her defiant leadership as mayor of Maidan Shar. Her courage to initiate a citywide campaign to reduce littering has inspired girls and women both in her municipality and across the country. #WomenOfCourage pic.twitter.com/qq0g7Etq4T
— Department of State (@StateDept) March 4, 2020
After receiving her honorary award, Ms. Ghafari directly implored the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in her public remarks to safeguard women’s rights in Afghanistan amid an uncertain future in the wake of the US-Taliban agreement.
“Women of my generation have not forgotten the reign of the Taliban and we are as always worried for the future,” she said in her public remarks, making an oblique reference to the agreement and the uncertain future facing women and girls in Afghanistan.
“Therefore, let me ask for your continued support to ensure that [the] Afghan peace process does not erase the gains that have been made since the dark days of the Taliban regime,” Ghafari said, turning to Pompeo and first lady Melania Trump, who were seated behind her as she delivered remarks onstage.
— Department of State (@StateDept) March 4, 2020
Ghafari thanked the US and Afghan governments, particularly that of President Ashraf Ghani, for their support of women’s rights.
The first female to hold office as a Mayor of a ‘conservative’ city in Afghanistan
After successfully launching and operating a women-focused radio station named Peghla FM Radio, Zarifa Ghafari was appointed as the mayor of Maidan Shahr. Ghafari was just 26 when she was appointed as the first female mayor of Maidan Shahr in July 2018, Afghanistan’s Wardak province, 80 kilometers southwest of the capital Kabul.
However, it took her nine months to officially take over the position. She was initially barred from holding office as the newly-appointed mayor due to the intervention of vested interests and influential figures.
She took the job despite it being too dangerous for her to live there – her office was mobbed by angry men on her first day and she was forced to flee.
“When I started my job, the men at the municipal office refused to acknowledge me and my authority. A mob came and chased me away. They thought that was the end of that. But I came back. I came back and stood my ground,” she said.
But Zarifa Ghafari is a fearless woman in a country where there is much to fear for women. Despite death threats from angry mobs, she came back to prove herself. She then withstood a walkout by all of the male members of her office. But she stood her ground and paid her duty with sheer bravery and honesty, defying her conservative critics and their narrative that a woman is unfit to lead.
She eventually demonstrated her ability and courage in tackling her town’s problems. Despite fierce opposition from vested interests, she successfully launched a “Clean City, Green City” campaign that reduced littering.
Receiving her award, Ms. Ghafari said:
“My name is Zarifa Ghafari. Actually, I am not a hero. I am just the mayor of Maidan Shahr, a city in southern side of capital. It’s a conservative place, a place where men aren’t used to seeing women in position of authority, a place where some men resist women in authority. When I start – I started my job, the men at the municipal office refused to acknowledge me and my authority. A mob came and chased me away. They thought that was the end of that, but I came back. I came back and I stood my ground.”
Besides the Pashtun mayor lady, a Baloch human rights activist from Balochistan, Jalila Haider also received the award. The first female attorney of her Hazara community, Haider specializes in defending women’s rights and provides free counselling and legal services to poverty-affected women.
They also included a leader of student protests in Nicaragua, a civil rights activist who was imprisoned and tortured in Syria, a prominent critic of domestic violence in Armenia and a trade unionist who has fought for gender equality in Zimbabwe.
Ghafari’s courage has inspired girls and women not only in her community and the wider province, but across the country. Ever since 1977 the living conditions were worsen for the people of Afghanistan due to years-long wars and the Taliban insurgency. Which further pushed the women from coming forward in an already men-dominant society. However, only few brave women such as Ms. Ghafari could stand against all the odds and challenges
Team PashtoScoop congratulates Zarifa Ghafari for her achievement and thanks her for being a trail-blazer and door-opener for other Afghan women. We are all lucky and proud to have you!