Afghanistan’s first lady, HE Rula Ghani, has repeatedly broken with convention since her husband, President Ashraf Ghani, came to office two years ago — taking everyone by surprise when he thanked her during his inauguration. Her visibility has only increased since then, as she has diplomatically but firmly defended women’s rights, both at public events and at meetings taken in her office at the presidential palace. While the former president, Hamid Karzai, never appeared in public with his wife during his 10 years in office, Rula Ghani’s role is more akin to that of American first ladies, using her profile to advocate for reform.
“It took Hillary Clinton six months to get an office in the White House,” she said playfully, of America’s former first lady. Ghani had set her own up within two weeks of her husband assuming the presidency, she told BBC Chief International Correspondent Lyce Doucet at the Women in the World London Forum on Thursday. “I wanted to know what was happening, be in the midst of things,” she said. “After two weeks at home, reading books and watching TV, I was getting extremely bored.”
This bold stance has led to comparisons with an earlier first lady — Queen Soraya, who was forced into exile in 1929 after King Amanullah abdicated. Soraya was seen as a modernizer and early feminist, who refused to wear a veil and took a progressive position on women’s issues. “I never considered myself a feminist, I never needed to,” Ghani told Doucet, reflecting on being given equal opportunities as her brother during her upbringing, and feeling no need to “push for space.”
“I certainly want to help women get the respect they have a right to, and if this is ‘feminism’ it’s fine,” she said.
Welcome to London, where we’re exclusively streaming the first #WITW Forum on Facebook LIVE in partnership with @Edelman UK! We’ll have a number of incredible speakers joining us onstage tonight including: Founder Tina Brown, Ed Williams CEO, Edelman UK & Ireland, UN Goodwill Ambassador Nadia Murad, Baroness Valerie Amos, Executive Director, World Food Programme Ertharin Cousin, Ukrainian MP Nadiya Savchenko, First Lady of Afghanistan Rula Ghani and Actress Rosamund Pike.
Posted by Women in the World on Thursday, October 6, 2016
Watch the complete conversation with Rula Ghani in the video above. Her interview begins at the 01:15:50 mark.
Born and raised in a Christian family in Lebanon, Ghani met her future husband while studying political science at the American University in Beirut. She had previously studied at Sciences Po in Paris, in the period of the 1968 student riots. She married in 1975 and spent the next couple of years in Afghanistan — a more liberal time, including in the freedoms women were accorded in their attire and access to education.
Before the 1978 civil war, the Ghanis moved to the United States where he completed a PhD, while she raised the couple’s two children. When Ashraf was appointed finance minister in 2002, they moved back to Kabul. On her return, she found a greatly changed country. “At the time I married, 40 years ago, the grandmother ran the family,” she recalled. ” Women were really running the homes, and that was no longer the case after the war.”
The position of women had been greatly eroded under the Taliban, that much was clear, but Ghani said she did not arrive with pre-set ideas to impose on the society. “No matter how long I lived in that country, I still don’t know the women’s situation,” she said. Instead, they would have to find the solutions and she would offer her protection and support.
Commenting on the outside perspective that Afghanistan is a terrible country in which to be female, Ghani spoke about the 6464 telephone helpline, established to resolve “family problems.” Seventy percent of the calls to that line are initiated by men, she said, who — having established the bona fides of the service — then put a woman on the line. “Seventy percent of women with problems have a male relative who wants to help,” she explained. “Like any country, we have some macho men and we also have some very good men.”
Her own approach to improving the rights of women is to work as cooperatively as possible alongside the existing customs and traditions of the country, encouraging women to read the Koran themselves, rather than rely on the translations offered by mullahs and imams. To this end, Ghani has been a big supporter of education for women — even if it is sometimes segregated.
“A lot of initial activism by women was done with a lot of bitterness and aggression,” she reflected. “You catch much more with honey than with vinegar. I think their style was going against the grain of the traditions and customs and a lot of people were irritated by that. They didn’t get any support in the population.”
Although change will be gradual, Ghani is optimistic for the future. “I feel the Afghan women are coming of age,” she said. “There is now a good group of women who know what they want and how they want it.
“It’s time to take the training wheels off the bike and let them ride.”
Watch Afghanistan’s first lady Rula Ghani interviewed by Thomas Friedman at the 2016 Women in the World New York Summit: