Zarifa Qazizadah: Afghan Supergran

By Guest Contributor Lara Alamad, cross-posted from Muslimah Media Watch

Zarifa Qazizadah. Image: BBC News.

To people of a certain age, the word Supergran might bring to mind a Scottish superhero from the 80′s, but this week a headline about an Afghan “supergran” was a world away from Saturday afternoon TV.

The article tells us that Zarifah Qazizadah is Afghanistan’s only female village chief; in fact, she’s only the second woman to ever hold this position. So what did she do to achieve such a level of authority that is so rarely allowed for women? Certainly her background was not unusual: she had to leave school at the age of 10 (something she regrets, stating that she was always top of the class prior to this), was married in her early teens and went on to have 15 children and subsequently 36 grandchildren.

So, in 2004 when she first ran for office, the men laughed: not only at a woman seeking a role of authority, but also at her claims that she would connect the village to the national grid and providing electricity, something to which only a third of the population of Afghanistan has access.

However, even losing that election did not deter Qazizadah from keeping her election promise. She travelled to Kabul, with her four-year-old daughter in tow, to insist upon a meeting the Minister for Power. While she was able to obtain his agreement, she was not able to get any funding. Again, this obstacle did not faze her; she remortaged her house and borrowed money (which has since been repaid) to pay for the work and, a mere five months later, the village had electricity. Furthermore, the profits from the electricity were able to fund a much-needed road bridge.

Unsurprisingly, Qazizadah was elected two years later.  Her next project was building the first mosque for the village where, uniquely for Afghanistan, men and women can pray together. Impressive as these achievements are, what has really been highlighted by these media stories is Qazizadah’s fearlessness and willingness to intervene in situations in the same way as a male village chief would. Travelling by herself provides no difficulty; she dons a false moustache and some men’s clothing and rides on her motorbike. To the astonishment of onlookers, she was able to use her tractor to pull a car out of a ditch. Additionally, she informs men that she needs only their prayers.  She’ll intervene for them with the government and that, if they hear any disturbances, she’ll come with her gun and investigate.

All the above does sound super indeed, but hidden in the media coverage, a question arises: if Qazizadah lost the election in 2004, but was then elected two years later in 2006, this means she has been in post for six years, so why is it only now we are hearing about her achievements? A Google search brings up nothing prior to last week.  Why is this? It not as if she is unknown outside of her village, since she has won 18 awards from the Afghanistan Government.

A strong possibility is that with the imminent NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the media is trying to construct a positive narrative of the NATO invasion. Another recent BBC story, this time praising the Afghani Army, would also indicate that this narrative-building is occurring. Interestingly, in the original article, Qazizadah was not asked her opinion on either the NATO invasion or its upcoming withdrawal, which again seems a rather odd omission.

Not that this lessens the import of Qazizdah’s story, which is one of not just overcoming adversity, but also of using situations to her advantage. Earlier in life, her family relocated to the regional capital, and it was there that she was able to begin community organising, first with a vaccine programme and then helping girls receive an education in secret, as by this time, the Taliban had seized power. She continues this community organising in her current role, as she is head of the local women’s council and encourages them to be educated. Meanwhile she also has other aims, hoping to gain a seat in the national parliament.

So while Qazizdah definitely is super, it is possible that the timing for this story is for less than heroic reasons.

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  • Anonymous

    Yeah, this is what I think every time I see a story about an amazing Afghan woman doing something amazing in a Western media outlet (or picked up by one). It’s really unfortunate how their achievements are contextualized within a certain discourse.

    I recently saw a video of a young woman who is a graffiti artist, and has a running theme of painting women in burqas in different shapes and positions (symbolizing the individuality and humanity of each woman, from what I got from the video). Now the young woman is amazing, and she’s doing what she is passionate about, AND she’s being political about it. She was a gold mine for a good artistic piece with political commentary, and they could have actually carried her voice and message out to the wider public. 
    Yet the video (Western-made, English logos and subtitles) did not once ask her to elaborate on her actual position on women under the Taliban and/or after, nor the situation of women under NATO occupation and at a time of war (brought by the west). There weren’t even comments on what the burqa and other types of Islamic clothing meant for her. The few explanations about the subject of her art were fragmented and tautological (because they were juxtaposed with the images), or simply about the programme that had enabled her to become a graffiti artist.

    It is ridiculous and confusing. All these pieces claim to talk of the independence and valor of Afghan women, yet they refuse to give them a voice on the subject of the political *reality* of their country. I also recently saw a documentary about the girls’ boxing team in Afghanistan, a bunch of fantastic, incredibly motivated young women who wanted to box. Well there was so much said, and implied, about how society in Afghanistan is terribly unfair, and convenient declarations from a male Muslim relative (bearded, wearing Taqiyah) that one of the women shouldn’t box because it’s simply not proper… It was absurd, because these girls were political symbols in the documentary, but they weren’t asked about NATO or the war, or the occupation, in direct relation with their lives. 

    Anyway.TLDR: I agree with this article, be very suspicious of articles on the subject

  • miga

    It is unfortunate that we haven’t heard of this woman before—she seems like a real badass.