When newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani delivered his inaugural address he surprised his audience by publicly addressing his wife, Rula Ghani, and thanking her for her efforts in helping women, children, and the internally displaced persons (IDPs). The fact that Ghani would publicly thank his wife has sparked hope in some quarters that women might be given a more prominent role in Afghanistan, with positive implications for women’s rights generally. But not everybody was happy: Hard-liners have expressed concern that the foreign-born, Christian first lady could pose a threat to Islamic values.
Rula Ghani was born into a Lebanese Christian family, and is a dual citizen of Lebanon and the US. She met her future husband when they were both studying at the American University of Beirut, and the couple lived in Afghanistan for a few years after marrying in 1975. In 1978, Rula and her husband moved to the United States, where he pursued a Ph.D. while she raised their children. The family returned to Afghanistan in 2002, when Ashraf Ghani was appointed finance minister of Afghanistan.
Rula went to work for an organization called Aschiana, which helps feed and educate street-children. Rula Ghani has often been compared to Soraya Tarzi, known as Queen Soraya, wife of King Amanullah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1919. The queen, who was a target for criticism because of her perceived modernity, served as minister of education, and sought to improve the lot of women in society. She established Afghanistan’s first school for girls and its first hospital for women. However, her liberal ideas on women’s roles in society incensed the religious right and were factors in her ending up in exile with her husband in 1929.
For her part, Rula Ghani has not given any indication of plans to upturn social norms in Afghanistan. Rather, she aims to revolutionize women’s roles within the current structure to improve their quality of life. Ghani has set up an office within the Presidential Palace to find ways to improve conditions for IDPs, who number around 750,000 in Afghanistan.
Although women in Afghanistan have won more rights since the fall of the Taliban, they are still heavily restricted by objections to girls receiving an education and working outside the home. The literacy rate for females aged 15 to 24 is 32 percent, compared to 62 percent for males. Rula Ghani apparently aims to change this, and encourage Afghans to realize the important roles that women play in society.
A first lady who is visible, let alone politically active, is unusual for Afghanistan. Advocating women’s rights backfired for the exiled Queen Soraya. Decades later, Afghanistan is probably still not ready for radical change, but eyes will be on Rula Ghani to see whether she can bring about modest gains in the rights of Afghanistan’s women.