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Afghanistan's First Lady Seeks To Blaze New Trail


When newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani paid tribute to his wife in his inauguration speech, he raised hopes that a woman might finally play a leading part in Afghanistan's political and social life.

Two months on, it's already clear Rula Ghani herself has no intention of staying in her husband's shadow.

"I think as the first lady I have a responsibility to be there for the people of this country," she told RFE/RL in the presidential palace in Kabul.

Rula Ghani's assertive stance marks a stark departure from previous first ladies, who have been all but absent from the public eye.

Throughout his decade in office, former President Hamid Karzai never appeared in public with his wife.

Rula Ghani, a Lebanese-American, has also surprised many Afghans with her crusade to empower women in a country known as one of the worst in the world for women's rights.

"Women are no longer as respected as they used to be," she laments. "They should be respected for whatever role they are taking, whether it's at home or outside the home."

The Ghanis left Afghanistan in 1977, one year before the civil war began. The couple lived in the United States, where Ashraf pursued his doctorate in anthropology before starting a career at the World Bank while Rula raised their two children.

The family moved back to Afghanistan in 2002, when Ashraf was appointed finance minister in Karzai's government following the ouster of the Taliban.

Despite criticism of the Ghanis' long absence from the country, Rula Ghani believes she can help resurrect the more carefree lifestyle Afghans enjoyed before the war.

"I am kind of the memory of those times. I keep telling people, 'This is what I used to see, this is how women were treated, this is how we spent our time, this is how we did things,'" she says. "So maybe in that sense, yes, I am bringing back some kind of information to people who either are too young to have known that time or who have gone through so many difficulties that they have forgotten about it."

Since returning to Afghanistan, Rula Ghani has volunteered at a nongovernmental organization helping children who work in the streets and their families.

She now plans to use the limelight to enhance her advocacy work.

Last week, she spoke at a conference in Oslo devoted to women's rights in Afghanistan.

She has already set up an office at the presidential palace to advise on ways to relieve the plight of Afghanistan's more than 700,000 international displaced people (IDPs).

"A lot needs to be done in Afghanistan," she says, describing the country as "a broken society" following more than two decades of civil war.

Right now, Rula Ghani says she's mostly in a "listening mode."

"I have a lot of people coming and talking to me, telling me about their problems," she says. "So I'm listening and I'm hoping that eventually I'll be able to identify certain areas where I can help them directly."

Her new status as first lady, however, has come with stringent restrictions.

She is largely consigned to the fortified presidential palace for security reasons, meaning she can no longer tour camps for displaced persons and visit those she is looking to help.

"I hope that I will be able to reach out to them even from within the walls of the palace," she says.

Many Afghans are nonetheless wary of Rula Ghani, who studied in France during the student protests of the late 1960s, and feel uncomfortable about a non-Afghan enjoying such prominence.

Her Christian background has also earned her foes in conservative circles.

So far she has skirted the issue of religion, saying simply that her childhood in a Christian family was "not a factor."

Written by Claire Bigg in Prague based on an interview by Malali Bashir
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