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Rula Ghani. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

A new era

First Lady refuses the portrayal of Afghan women as victims

By Abigail Pesta on April 7, 2016

When Rula Ghani first moved to Afghanistan, women wore miniskirts.

That was back in 1975. She had come to the country with her new Afghan husband, Ashraf Ghani, after meeting him in college in her native Lebanon. The couple left Afghanistan a couple of years later, before the civil war, and came to the United States, where her husband got his PhD. When they returned to Afghanistan in 2002, after decades of conflict, the landscape looked very different for women.

Now the first lady of Afghanistan, Ghani spoke about the past and future for the country’s women in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Wednesday. With a stunning black-and-white photo of Afghan women in miniskirts as a backdrop, she said, “This was normal. One of these ladies could have been my mother-in-law.”

The years of war in Afghanistan destroyed “the fabric of society,” Ghani said. “There is no more right or wrong. During a time of war … you’re in survival mode and you do sometimes horrible things you never thought you would do.” The middle class abandoned the country, leaving women especially in a “vacuum,” vulnerable to movements that stamped out their freedoms.

Born and raised in a Christian family in Lebanon, Ghani is fluent in Arabic and reads the Quran. The extremist movements, she said, are not about religion, but “much more like cults.” Last December, a young woman named Farkhunda Malikzada was beaten to death by a mob after she was falsely accused of burning the Quran. Ghani lamented the killing as “extremely unfortunate,” but noted that it had the effect of energizing women in protest. In a highly unusual move, women insisted on carrying Malikzada’s coffin themselves rather than allow men to do it. “Traditionally, women don’t even go to the cemetery,” Ghani said. “They really showed their determination.” Women “really have been working to do things in a different way,” such as meeting mullahs and imams to discuss what Islam says about the treatment of women, she said.

Friedman asked if Ghani would call her husband an “Afghan feminist.” She responded by invoking the influence of his grandmother, who made certain that her children and grandchildren attended university. “Afghanistan is a normal country, and like in any country, there are chauvinists and there are regular men,” she said. A hotline run by the ministry of women’s affairs for resolving family issues receives seventy percent of its calls from men “worried for a woman relative,” she said. “It shows that men really care about women. As I said, we have every kind.”

Rula Ghani (Bibi Gul), First Lady of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan at The 2016 Women In The World Summit/ (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Rula Ghani, First Lady of Afghanistan, at The 2016 Women In The World Summit/ (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Ghani credits her husband with working to improve life for Afghan women. Ashraf Ghani has appointed four women to serve as ministers and two as governors (one later resigned). He nominated a woman to serve on the Supreme Court, but her nomination fell short by six votes. The Afghan parliament currently includes 67 women.

When Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated in 2014, he publicly thanked his wife for her support, an unprecedented move in Afghanistan. By contrast, the former president, Hamid Karzai, reportedly did not appear in public with his wife during a decade in office.

Rula Ghani has not shied away from the public eye herself. She works out of her own office in the palace, advising people on improving their standard of living, especially those displaced by conflict. With her children now grown, she did not want to “sit idle,” she explained. Initially she expected that a few visitors might occasionally drop by for tea. Instead, “a huge deluge” of people came, women and men alike. The women always “come up with the solutions,” she said.

Western publications portray Afghanistan as an economic failure, but that is a myth, Ghani said. “For the past eighteen months, there have been a lot of improvements,” especially to the country’s infrastructure, she said. “Afghanistan is not as bad as the press makes it [seem].”

Friedman asked if a woman could one day be president of Afghanistan. “We’ve had female candidates for the presidency,” Ghani replied. “So who knows?”

Additional reporting contributed by Lisa Desai.

Watch the full panel here: