As the wife of the newly elected president, Rula Ghani stands to be the first publicly visible wife of an Afghan leader in nearly a century.
But unlike her most direct antecedent — Queen Soraya, who along with her husband, King Amanullah, ruled Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929 — she has no intention of drastically upending Afghan social norms.
Instead, Rula Ghani, a Lebanese Maronite Christian in a predominantly Muslim nation, wants to provide support for every “woman who wants to better herself and improve her standard of living within the [societal] context she is living now.”
Though Afghan women have regained many rights since the fall of the religiously extremist Taliban — 28% of the parliament is made up of female representatives — women, particularly in rural areas, must still contend with cultural objections to working outside the home and getting an education.
Last year, the United Nations documented 650 cases of violence and abuse against women, the majority of which went unpunished.
“My aim is not to revolutionize the situation but to improve the situation for women within the existing structures.... I’m here to help women establish their own importance within the family,” the wife of President Ashraf Ghani said in an interview at the presidential palace.
Rula Ghani — who first lived as part of an Afghan family in the Kabul home of her in-laws for three years in the mid-1970s — says she wants to use her role as bano aval, or first lady, to strengthen the position of Afghan women within the “close networks” of Afghan families.
Throughout her husband’s presidential campaign, high-profile critics, including Mohammad Mohaqeq — deputy to rival candidate Abdullah Abdullah — sought to paint Rula as a foreigner out of touch with a Muslim society. Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of the northern province of Balkh, said Ashraf Ghani didn’t “know about religion” and said his “children and wife are not Afghans.”
She counters that she has never felt out of place in Afghanistan. From the outset, she has said that her upbringing in a Lebanese family fluent in Arabic, French and English helped her to adjust quickly to Afghan ways.
“I was immediately accepted by the family. When people realized I spoke Arabic they thought I spoke the language of the Koran,” the first lady said.
This helped her to quickly learn Dari, one of the nation’s two most prominent languages.
In the late ‘70s, the couple went to New York for Ashraf’s doctoral studies at Columbia University. Like many Afghans, the Ghanis found their lives upended by the 1978 coup that led to the Soviet occupation.
With two of Ashraf’s uncles imprisoned and tortured by the communist government of Hafizullah Amin, the two were warned not to return.
“The family told us there was nothing left for us in Afghanistan, so we had to settle in the United States,” she said.
While in America, Rula Ghani, a journalist by training, focused mainly on raising her children, Tarek and Mariam.
When she returned to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, she was shocked by the living conditions of many children, and went to work for Aschiana, a local organization that helps feed and educate street children.
It was this work, along with raising their children and running the household, that Ashraf Ghani referred to when he mentioned his wife at the inauguration.
She said the mention took her by surprise.
“I think it was wonderful that my husband took advantage of the public space to recognize what I have been doing in my life through now and to acknowledge that I have been an important contributor to his own life,” the first lady said.
“This is precisely what I would like other husbands and men in Afghanistan to do, recognize the importance of the women — wives, mothers and daughters — around them and what they contribute to their lives.”
The brief reference was also a way for the president to dispel news reports that his wife described as being like “reading fiction.”
Aside from a brief speech at a March 9 event to honor women, she had purposely kept out of both of her husband’s presidential campaigns. “I decided the best way to not having deeds or words attributed to me was to not give any interview.”
Though she laughed at unattributed allegations that she would convert the nation’s women to Christianity, it was the accusations that her husband had helped orchestrate widespread, government-assisted fraud to secure the presidency that hurt her.
“I know my husband; I thought people did too. If they know him they know he would never commit fraud,” she said.
Now that the campaign is over, Rula Ghani said, she is willing to take some steps into the limelight. “All I want is to let women know that I will be there to support and encourage them when they set out to do something.”
This, she said, will require “participation and teamwork of people to stand up for their place within the family.”
But stepping into the spotlight could prove to be a precarious move.
Already, news reports have cast her as a “Lebanese Christian with U.S. citizenship,” an outsider who is being forced onto the Afghan public.
“Why is he trying to pass her off as Afghan to us as if we wouldn’t notice,” one Kabul resident said during a debate about the president’s mention of his wife during the inauguration.
For her part, the first lady has little fear that her presence will be used to help bring down her husband.
“I have noticed that with some people I speak to progress is [seen as] ‘becoming liberated from the family,’ and that’s not progress, that’s actually creating a lot of dislocation of the social fabric.”
When women take jobs, she said, “they’re not doing that to ‘liberate’ themselves, they’re doing that because they need to, to contribute to their family.”
Her religious background, she added, also is irrelevant. “My husband stands on his own two feet; my religion is not a factor.”
“God created and decided for me to be born in a Christian family. It’s not every day that a Lebanese marries an Afghan. I think God’s hand is also in there.”
Latifi is a special correspondent