Will Afghanistan's New First Lady Push For Gender Equality?

Afghanistan's new first lady, Rula Ghani, has taken a more public profile than her predecessor. Will she be able to make an impact on the country?
Posted at 9:14 PM, Oct 09, 2014

Now that the bitter dispute over Afghanistan's presidential election has been more or less settled, most observers are now wondering what changes new president Ashraf Ghani will bring to the troubled county.

But there's one figure who might provide some clues into Ghani's presidential plans: Afghanistan's new first lady, Rula Ghani.

President Ghani caused a minor stir during his inauguration speech when he thanked his wife for her support. Afghanistan's first ladies have traditionally maintained low profiles, and Ghani's public acknowledgement of Rula shocked many conservative Afghans. 

And Mrs. Ghani is far from a typical Afghan woman. A Lebanese American and a Christian, she's already been bucking tradition by publicly supporting her husband's presidential campaign and giving a speech on International Women's Day.

Some media outlets are drawing comparisons to another famous first lady in Afghanistan: Queen Soraya, an outspoken female leader who pushed for women's rights and education during the reign of her husband — Amanullah Khan — from 1920-1929.

But it remains to be seen whether Rula Ghani can have a similar effect on Afghanistan — or whether her public profile will hinder Ghani's presidential agenda.

Some Afghans aren't happy with Mrs. Ghani's prominence. One shopkeeper told NBCRula Ghani "will cause resentment among the practicing Afghan Muslims. ... Ashraf Ghani will be the next president, but he cannot force us to accept a foreigner as the first lady."

But she also has some support within Afghanistan, particularly from the media. As The Telegraph points out, several prominent journalists congratulated President Ghani on thanking his wife during his inauguration.

The president, for his part, has also been an outspoken proponent of women's rights, vowing to appoint women to high-level positions within his government. He told The Diplomat "[Women's] agenda for inclusion is second to none."

A Foreign Policy writer noted both the president and his first lady will have an uphill battle if they plan to shake up Afghanistan's conservative, traditional politics.

"Given Afghanistan's patriarchal nature and the top-down decision-making mechanisms, women's leadership is not much more than an ambiguous concept for most. ... The capacity to strike a balance between individual independence and collective social interdependence is at the heart of the exercise of leadership in this field."

According to representatives from Ghani's camp, Rula Ghani plans to focus her efforts on humanitarian assistance for women, children, and internally displaced people during her husband's first term.

This video includes images from Getty Images, German Federal Archives.