In a male-dominated society that has for years been controlled by the ultra-conservative Taliban, the emergence of the first female village chief took everyone by surprise.
After being ridiculed by male villagers for wanting to occupy political office, Zarifa Qazizadah, the mother of 15 children, managed to become the mayor of Naw Abad, a village in the northern Balkh province.
Qazizadah’s political ambition started in 2004 when she told her mocking fellow villagers that she wanted to represent them and promised to supply Naw Abad with electricity.
“I am telling the men in my village that if they have any problems, I will talk to the government on their behalf and in case of any trouble at night, I will carry my gun and come to your houses to solve the problem,” she said.
Qazizadah added that she is willing to be disguised as a man and drive a motorcycle in the middle of the night if this will enable her to help her people.
She lost the 2004 elections but kept her promise as far as connecting the village to electricity is concerned. Two years later, the same men who ridiculed Qazizadah asked her to run for head of the village and she finally succeeded.
Currently, Qazizadah’s priority is guarding the electricity supply in Naw Abad and making sure there are no power thefts in the neighborhood.
“I cannot allow this to happen,” she said. “It is against the law.”
Qazizadah also kept her promise about handling problems that occur at night – she dons men’s clothes, gets on her motorcycle, and heads to where the trouble is. According to her, disguise is better in a conservative society that would be shocked to see a woman on a motorcycle late at night.
Qazizadah also uses her own field tractor to tow cars that break down in the middle of the road or get stuck in the mud.
“She does things men are incapable of,” said Mulawi Sayed Mohamed, one of the villagers.
To make the electricity project materialize, Qazizadah sold her jewelry to be able to travel to the capital Kabul and negotiate with relevant bodies.
She also mortgaged her house in order to secure the amount required to supply the village with electricity. Five months later, she was able to supply all the houses in the village with electricity.
“Villagers only got to know what I did after they were connected. Then they started paying me back.”
Qazizadah used the money villagers paid for their electricity consumption to build a bridge that connects the village with the main road.
She also helped fund the construction of the first mosque in Naw Abad which is distinguished from all the other mosques in the country by the fact that both men and women pray in it together.
Qazizadah’s achievements look even more substantial when seen against the backdrop of her circumstances. The 50-year-old mayor was married at the age of 10 and had her first child at the age of 15. She lived for years with her husband in a remote village where she was “nothing but a servant” as she puts it.
When the Taliban took over, she moved with her family to Mazar-e-Sharif where she started community work with a vaccination campaign for children. She also started an initiative to teach children to read and write.
Qazizadah, now the grandmother of 36 children, is also head of the Women’s Council in the village and holds regular meetings for female villagers whom she advises to follow in her footsteps and teaches means of self-empowerment.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)