Afghanistan’s new First Lady – a positive change for women?

Many specialists on the First Ladyship’s question agree that a First Lady embodies the model of womanhood that currently dominates in her country. If this statement can be argued as to its global application, it seems however that it fits to the recent change in the model of First Ladyship in Afghanistan and the will of the new Afghan president to improve the situation of women in his country.


Until September 2014 in Afghanistan there was no office of the First Lady. The spouse of the president Hamid Karzai stopped working as a doctor when her husband became the Head of State and during 10 years of his tenure she remained isolated inside the walls of the Presidential palace. She refused to speak publicly and appeared so few times that a part of the public opinion didn’t even know her name. Obviously, she did not advocate for any social cause and did not make any effort to improve the situation of women who were oppressed by the strongly sexist traditionalist system. She perfectly embodied thus the imaginary of a typical woman in the Afghan society.


On September, 29 Afghanistan experienced a political and cultural earthquake. During the ceremony of swearing in, the new president, Ashraf Ghani publicly thanked his wife for her support during the campaign and announced that from that moment she would take an active role on the political stage advocating for women’s rights.


Those words provoked all kinds of reactions, going from a strong approval to virulent critics. Indeed, the presidential dream of empowering Afghan women seems to be very hard to turn into reality.


Firstly, Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places to be a woman:

  • Following a ranking made in 2011 by Newsweek Afghanistan is the 164th (out of 165) place where it is good to live if you are a woman.
  • 85% of women are illiterate and have never been integrated in the education system.
  • The rate of women’s death during the labor is very high.
  • Half of women is engaged or married under the age of 12, and many of them are married to far older men (marriages of a 12-year-old girl with a 60-year-old man do not make an exception).
  • Mistreatment of women is general and they are not protected by the law (in reality, the opposite is the case, as the family law implicitly allows gender violence).
  • Only 15% of women work nowadays and since 2012 they are legally forbidden to travel alone. It is without saying that in this strongly patriarchic society, the man is the only one entitled to make any decision.

In consequence, any attempt of the new presidential couple to change the women’s situation will logically meet a high wall of difficulties and social protests.


Secondly, the Afghanistan’s new First Lady is a stranger out of touch with Afghan traditions and norms, and as such, rejected by more conservative parts of the Afghan society. Rula Ghani is indeed a highly educated Libanese-American of the Maronite Christian religion, who studied in Paris, Beirut and New York. During the presidential campaign, in which she took an active part, she was a victim of political attacks, especially on the religious level. This international profile can be a reason of a possibility that she can easily destroy the public image of her husband, who already experienced rejections of a part of the society for having lived many years abroad and for being an international technocrat. Subsequently, the position of Rula Ghani is very fragile and she has to pay a particular attention to her public posture.


As a consequence, the new First Lady cannot follow the path of Queen Soraya, the last (and probably the first) woman in power who wished to empower Afghan women. There won’t be any dramatic change, because Ruta Ghani is aware of political crisis she can provoke and tries to carefully balance between her vision of the women’s place in the society and the traditionalist values of the country. In an interview she admitted that she would concentrate her efforts on a reinforcement of the women’s position within the family and that she would be more a counselor than an activist.

Nevertheless, Afghan women’s rights’ activists say that even the simple fact of being in the spotlight sends a positive message to Afghan women, as in the highly dominated by men society any presence of a prominent woman makes a great difference.

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