Afghanistan First Lady: Afghan Women Have Raised Their Voice against Violence

RulaZalmayFeatureAfghanistan’s First Lady, H.E. Mrs  Rula Ghani, was invited to speak on Afghanistan and its journey to development at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.
The First Lady spoke about the progress and achievements particularly on women’s rights by disputing some of the myths about Afghanistan that she said existed in the West and particularly the Western media.
Mrs.  Ghani also contested the myth that the United States has lost the war and failed in Afghanistan. “Wasn’t America’s aim to help rebuild the country and help it on its way to achieving political stability? Wasn’t the peaceful succession from President Karzai to President Ghani the sign of political maturity?” she asked.On the National Unity Government and its performance, she said it would be inaccurate to say that the government is not working. “Repeated half-truths take a life of their own…and suddenly become conventional wisdom.” She added. Mrs. Ghani said the Afghan government has made progress on reducing corruption, but counselled caution noting that “it takes time to clean up years of neglect and absence of management. It takes even more time to build up solid foundations on which to build the reforms.” Her remarks were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, President of Gryphon Partners, and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Board of Directors. The First Lady answered questions by audience on her Office role in helping address some of the pressing needs of specific groups like women and children. She concluded by saying that people of Afghanistan want to be able to live peacefully in their villages and cities, and have the same aspirations as other people.

Full text of HE The  First Lady’s speech:

In the Name of God the Compassionate the Merciful
Distinguished Members of the Audience
I come to you in Peace As Salam Aleikum

By inviting me to address this select gathering of thoughtful and influential movers and shakers, men and women, the Atlantic Council and its Afghanistan Rising Initiative are honoring me. And I would like to thank Fred Kempe, Jim Cunningham and Zal Khalilzad for their warm welcome. Thank you also to you, members of this audience for taking the time to come and listen to me.
Listening is something I myself do a lot in Afghanistan. When I first decided to fully assume the responsibilities of First Lady some 18 months ago, I was entering unchartered waters. I had no specific agenda but that of serving the people, especially the vulnerable ones. That meant that I had to get to know them better and understand their grievances. Hence the open door policy of my office. In the first six to eight months, groups after groups have come to see me, pouring out their hearts and sharing their concerns. Some came from the provinces, others from Kabul, a few are civil servants, among them of course the four women ministers, others are social activists or entrepreneurs. To this date the flow is constant if somewhat less rushed.

I listen to what my four advisors report to me daily—four enthusiastic, hardworking women, slightly younger than I am, who deeply care for their country, who still remember how beautiful and strong it was forty years ago, who are determined to help rebuild its society, and who strongly believe in the capabilities of the Afghan people.

I also listen to the international community. Some of you here today can vouch for it. From UN agencies, to embassies, to international aid institutions (USAID, DIFID, Australian Aid, Canadian CIDA, Japanese JICA, etc.etc.), to NGOs, and even to individuals (I am thinking for example of Pascale, that French lady who is bent on creating a virtual cultural museum for Afghanistan). I love their dynamism though I sometimes chaff at their bureaucracies…

All this to say, in a roundabout way, that the information I’ll be presenting to you will be first hand, factual, and representative. It might not reflect what you read in journalistic or even in some expert accounts. (I was struck by a comment on the ongoing political debate on terrorism, from Susan Hasler, a former CIA fact checking analyst, who recently wrote: “People make the most incendiary, irresponsible claims as if stating indisputable facts. Hardly anyone will tell you where they got their information. Repetition and volume try to take the place of verification.” I would use word for word her observation to describe the reporting on Afghanistan these days.)
Journalists are so rushed trying to be the first to scoop a story while striving to write it in its most sensational and entertaining version that they hardly have time to check their facts. Repeated half truths take a life of their own, especially on social media, and suddenly become conventional wisdom.

The result today is the existence of several myths that need to be debunked:

The Taliban are winning. Really? Then why is it that we keep hearing about the same 100 meters being lost and regained in Helmand every other week or month? And why is it that their leader cannot claim to be Amir el Muemenin? The fact is that they do not fully control enough territory to be able to make that claim. And by the way, who is the Institute for the Study of War that produces misguiding maps to the contrary?
America has lost the war. What war? America came in to hunt down Osama Ben Laden—which was done. To my knowledge America is not at war with the Afghan people.

America has failed in Afghanistan. Wasn’t America’s aim to help rebuild the country and help it on its way to achieving political stability? Wasn’t the peaceful succession form president Karzai to President Ghani the sign of political maturity?

The electoral process in 2014 was fraudulent. How can you still insist on that when the UN commission carried on three different recounts over two months and was unable to discover the alleged “fraud on an industrial scale?”

The Unity Government is not working. When Angela Merkel took over six months to put together her Unity Government nobody blinked. Why should it be different in the case of Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is falling apart economically. Maybe they mean that the pockets of the previous bureaucratic and political elite are no longer bulging with ill-gotten money. In my book less corruption should be considered progress!
The present Afghan Government is inefficient and disorganized. It takes time to clean up years of neglect and absence of management. It takes even more time to set up solid foundations on which to build reforms. Let us keep an open mind for a year or so. Besides, in their USIP “peacebrief”, Bill Byrd and Khalid Payenda are already reporting that collection of revenue has already increased by 22% during 2015. If anything, this is not a sign of disorganization!

Afghan men are an uncivilized lot. Illiteracy does not mean lack of culture. Afghan traditional society is highly cultured. Of course this is seldom the case for warlords and mercenaries. But isn’t that true in most post conflict situations? And again it takes time to replace the reign of violence with the rule of law. And the government is hard at wok reforming the Justice system. 

Afghan women are worse off than before and any peace with the Taliban will be made at their expense/or its alternative women have no say in the peace negotiations. Let’s get the record straight: The number 2 on the High Peace Council is no other than Mrs. Sorabi, former governor of the Bamyan province and no shrinking violet. Another woman is also on the negotiating team: Mrs. Hassina Safi, head of the all-important Afghan Women Network AWN. Women are taking part in the peace process and at the highest level. Besides, President Ghani himself has repeatedly declared in public speeches that the issue of women’s rights is non-negotiable.

I would not be surprised if some of you will want to raise questions regarding several of the precedent points, and I will be glad to engage them during the Q&A session that will follow my speech. Let me though tell you more about a topic close to my heart: the women of Afghanistan.

As I mentioned at the beginning there is a constant stream of women who come to see me. Lately, I have noticed an increasing number of upbeat accounts. Of course we are far from having solved all the problems and challenges and it has been less than a year since the barbaric tragedy of Farkhunda in Kabul , and even less since the savage stoning of Rukhshana in Ghor, to name just a few cases of violence against women. !

But the women of Afghanistan did not take this lying down and have raised their voices against all this violence. One of the results of their efforts has been the creation, with the help of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, of an emergency fund dedicated to the victims of violence that will help cover their expenses especially their legal and medical ones. Another has been the holding of several meetings and conferences with religious scholars as counterparts to discuss what is the place of women in Islam and to clarify any misconception. And believe me, you would be surprised as to how many injunctions in the Holy Quran preach respect for women and equal treatment of women and men!!

One very important development in our country since the new government came to power 18 months ago has been the greater participation of women in public affairs. We now have four women ministers, all four very active and effective; our foreign service now counts three women ambassadors (soon to be four); we almost had our first women judge at the Supreme Court, (by the way do you know that we have over 250 women judges in Afghanistan, whereas some of our neighbors do not even have one!…); many more women have been joining the civil service, some of them in responsible positions such as deputy ministers; the police are aiming at recruiting 5000 women and have already passed the half way mark; the army has identified positions that are exclusively to be filled by women while also declaring some other positions to be open to both women and men; and so on and so on.

In other words, the present government is actively pursuing the integration of women in its decision-making processes. At the cabinet level, a commission for gender policy, led by Vice-President, Sarwar Danesh and attended by representatives of several ministries, has been busy looking into the gender units of all ministries and the gender sensitivity of all official rules and policies. 

The ongoing reform of the Justice system is also benefitting women. A special division (diwan) of the Supreme Court is now dedicated to cases of violence against women and children and is headed by one of the Supreme Court Judges. This has ensured special attention and higher speed in resolving those cases. (One such case is that of Farkhunda that is being carefully re-examined) Also, a special Commission of the Supreme Court has been reviewing the cases of every imprisoned woman and, to date, 95 women have been released or pardoned and 42 have seen their sentenced reduced. New regulations regarding harassment at the workplace were issued in September 2015. The criminal code is being amended so that women running away from home are no longer automatically considered criminals and sent to jail. Here again, many more adjustments are still needed but the Justice system is definitely becoming increasingly fair towards women.!

And I could go on and on about the women-friendly policies that are being implemented by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, of Agriculture, of Rural Development and of Labor and Social Affairs, following the guidelines of the official Women Economic Empowerment Plan.
My own team of advisors have also had their share in bringing improvements to the condition of women in Afghanistan. In the Health field, one major accomplishment has been the formation of an Afghan Cancer Association bringing together all existing health cancer specialists under the auspices of the Public Health ministry to set up a unified policy towards the fight against Cancer—with an emphasis on breast and cervical cancer. Similarly, our office has supported a campaign launched by the counter-narcotics Ministry and has helped in establishing a treatment center for addicts with one special hospital dedicated to the treatment of 300 women addicts.!

So, it will not surprise you if I conclude today with a message of hope. The hope that I see on the faces of the women who come to visit with me, the hope that these women are slowly regaining control of their destiny, the hope that the protection afforded to them by the Afghan constitution is gaining momentum, the hope that they can become active participants in their country’s social, economic and political life, the hope that they can dream again for a better future for them and their families.

Nowhere is this message of hope stronger than in the lives of the rising generation.
I see it in Malika who at age 25, with a starting loan of merely Afs1700, found the way to start three small businesses, open two high schools, and buy a piece of land on which she hopes to build a pasta factory. 

I see it in her contemporary Shabanah who, acutely aware of the educational aspirations of girls from the provinces, is finding so many ways to provide them with opportunities for learning in Kabul and abroad and who is about to fulfill a dream of opening a boarding secondary and high school for them in the capital.

I see it in another of their contemporary Narges who has founded her own NGO in order to be of help to her community, attending to those in need, and who single-handedly managed to accompany 20 handicapped children to India where she had arranged for their treatment and came back with 17 of them now able to walk.

I see it in Leila, who after several years of taking care of her brother who was addicted to drugs, decided to open a shelter where 40 addicts are attended, and who is running in parallel a small restaurant in order to cover her expenses.

I see it in Aminah, an MBA graduate from AUAF who after several years of helping Kabul University students in the department of economics start their own business is now about to start a venture that covers the whole process of production of wool, threads and carpets in order to create 5,000 jobs to women in Afghan provinces.

If this is not hope then what is!
Thank you

 Afghanistan First Lady: Afghan Women Have Raised Their Voice against Violence – March 31, 2016

Afghanistan’s First Lady backs cancer campaign

A killer disease has united two women living 3,500 miles apart. One is a sufferer, the other a surgeon. Until recently they were strangers, but a London-based networking group brought them together in the wake of a campaign that has now attracted the support of Afghanistan’s First Lady writes Glyn Strong (UK Progressive).

When a Kabul mob turned on a devout young woman and publicly beat her to death, the world was shocked; Farkhunda’s murder in March was frenzied, brutal and barbaric. Yet every year hundreds of Afghan women are killed by a stealthy, silent killer that attracts no international protest.

It is breast cancer, a disease that goes undetected and largely untreated in a country where routine screening is impossible and timely treatment, rare. Those lucky enough to be diagnosed while there is still hope have to go abroad to get specialist treatment.

Shinkai Karokhail, was one of them. The 53-year-old mother of four had to leave her home in Kabul, pay for treatment, undergo a double mastectomy and aggressive chemo/radiotherapy to save her life. She is still recovering, but Shinkai knows she is ‘one of the lucky ones’.

She is also an MP and one of the very few Afghan women willing to talk openly about this taboo subject.

Dr Zarghuna Taraki, University College Hospital London.

Dr Zarghuna Taraki, University College Hospital London. ©Photographer Glyn Strong

“Even friends and educated people don’t want me to mention it, but I think now it is time to speak out and take steps to raise awareness and fight against cancer.”

Shinkai did more than talk; she initiated a breast cancer awareness campaign, picked-up and implemented by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health: “We founded a ‘Let’s Fight Against Cancer’ group to advocate for a cancer centre, and I invited the First Lady  (Mrs. Rula Ghani) to lend her voice and support.”

Three and a half thousand miles away, another Afghan woman is fighting breast cancer, but in a very different way. Dr Zarghuna Taraki specialises in treating the disease at University College Hospital, in London although, like Shinkai, she was born in Kabul. The parliamentarian and the clinician have never met and live very different lives – but they are both Afghan women, both mothers and both passionately committed to tackling a disease that is needlessly killing thousands of people in their country

Zarghuna, whose UK patients have access to excellent treatment, said, “Cancer is a dark area in Afghanistan – not only breast cancer but all cancer – there is certainly no comprehensive awareness campaign. I was talking to some ladies back home and they asked me questions such as ‘Is it possible that a breast can develop a disease?’

“Most women in Afghanistan look to other women, their friends and families, for information. In the villages especially I don’t think they have any knowledge about the meaning of breast lumps or breast cancer –  so they die without ever knowing the reason.  This is very sad but it also makes it harder to learn how widespread breast cancer is when causes of death are unknown.”

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide – it accounts for about 12% percent of all new cancers and 25% of all cancers in women.”

(The former Head of Kabul’s Malalai Hospital, Dr Nasrin Oriakhil  (now Minister for Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled) was once quoted as saying, “There are no precise statistics for breast cancer in Afghanistan; however, we know that there are many patients. Just looking at our hospital, five of our employees have breast cancer and they do not have access to proper treatment.”)

We are sitting in a London café, not far from Warren Street tube station, doing what women the world over do – drink coffee, chatter and share cakes. Zarghuna, who speaks four languages, is telling me about her own struggle simply to practice as a breast cancer physician.

“It’s difficult to say why I became a doctor but I know that I really do want to help people, especially as, for women in Afghanistan you know, it’s not easy for them . . . but I never imagined that I would end up in the UK working as a doctor.

“My childhood was very colourful!  I grew up in a big family – five brothers and a sister. My family was always supportive of me studying and my mother and father always told me that education was vital. Three of my cousins are doctors. We lived in Kabul but went on holiday to villages so I experienced city and rural life.  Unfortunately the situation in Afghanistan got worse . . . so it was not such a hard thing for me to leave.”

Zarghuna qualified as a doctor in Moscow, returning home to work as an obstetrician/gynaecologist.

“But once again the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and I fled the country. I came to the UK in 1998 with my small family, consisting of my husband and 18-month-old daughter.”

With only a few words of English and their old life gone Zarghuna and her husband had to pick up the pieces and start over.  He had been a lawyer. She had been a doctor. It was a low point, but she recalls her husband’s words with a smile: “He said to me you still ARE a doctor!”

dr zarghuna taraki 2Working as a driver to support the family, her husband insisted that she fight to practice medicine again.

“I went to college to learn basic English, then intermediate, followed by high-level English for academic purposes. It was hard, because around this time I also had my second child.”

With the tenacity and courage of so many Afghan women Zarghuna passed her English exams and went on, once more, to qualify as a doctor, working her way up through a variety of clinical attachments, learning about health priorities and rising expectations about cancer treatment.

Clearly a compassionate and highly intelligent woman, Zarghuna cares deeply about her British patients, but part of her is always in Afghanistan, where things are very different, as Dr Karokhail discovered.

“I have tremendous respect for Shinkai Karokhail and what she has done,” says Zarghuna, “because it is not easy to speak about these things publicly there.”

When NATO formally ended its commitment to Afghanistan, after 13 years of conflict, the country that had dominated Western news channels for over a decade, slowly slipped off the international radar. “Our Afghan partners can and will take the fight from here,” said Commander ISAF, General John F Campbell at the departure ceremony. He was referring to insurgency and drugs, but in fact there were many other battles to be fought, against a background of shattered infrastructure and political uncertainty.

Former Medical Director of Kabul’s CURE International Hospital, Dr Jacqui Sinclair, left Afghanistan with her husband Eric in 2008 but remained in contact with colleagues. She welcomed the news that initiatives were afoot to tackle breast cancer adding, “It’s hard for Afghan women to qualify as doctors and they are almost exclusively working as paediatricians or in obstetrics/gynaecology. As it is not ‘appropriate’ for women to see male doctors, and there are no female breast surgeons, the situation is very depressing.”

After  ISAF troops left, many NGO and charity workers followed. Foreign doctors who brought expertise increasingly became targets and several known to the Sinclairs were attacked and killed after they left.

Currently there are no public information campaigns about self-examination, or the screening programmes that would enable early detection and less invasive surgery; nor are there dedicated treatment facilities where the psychological and physical aspects of breast cancer treatment can be delivered side by side.

Afghanistan is a vast, landlocked country – extremely poor and heavily dependent on foreign aid. Its savage beauty may be breathtaking, but without a safe, effective transport network to traverse its challenging terrain, communities are isolated in every sense of the word. For women, denied the socio-economic freedoms of men, it is worse. Solutions that would work in more developed countries are irrelevant in Afghanistan where access and security challenges obviate even the deployment of mobile screening units.

But for a woman suffering from breast cancer, what happens on the global stage is an irrelevance. Her world shrinks to one circumscribed by diagnosis, prognosis and fear. The outlook for sufferers is bleak as Shinkai, despite her education, status and tenacity, discovered.

Conscious that she was an age group that elsewhere warranted routine breast screening she went to India for a mammogram. “We (in Afghanistan) have no such facility or system to take care of our health. In the beginning I was told that there was ‘some calcification’ but a later ultrasound result showed that all was normal.”

Still Shinkai had a feeling that something was amiss. “I felt I had the beginning of a cancer and a few months later I suddenly found that my left breast had changed in size a lot. I went to a doctor and, after a very unprofessional examination; she told me that nothing was wrong. ‘You are absolutely fine’ she said. I tried to convince her that I was sick but she refused to accept it.”

Pressed about the change in breast size Shinkai’s doctor said it was due to breast-feeding – 13 years earlier!

“Three months later, I went to the US and while there my nipple started bleeding. My friend, who is doctor, sent me for mammogram and ultrasound.”

On 8th October 2013, in the USA, she was diagnosed with aggressive, Stage 3 breast cancer and too ill, according to the American doctors, to go back to India for treatment.

For Shinkai the news that she was out of options was a heavy blow.  “I felt like all patients, especially women, but the most depressing part was when I was told they had to remove both my breasts. It is difficult for a women to lose part of her body.”

Sadly, that wasn’t all she’d had to contend with. “The worst part was when the hospital refused to do my test because of the fee. I had to get money from family and friends. It was difficult to get money from Afghanistan. With help from the Afghan Embassy and an NGO this was eventually resolved.

“One of the women’s organisations which has an office in the US called Women for Afghan Women helped me to get money through their account. Everyone sent me a financial contribution toward my treatments – family, friends, members of civil society and government.

“Chemotherapy was the worst. Each stage was very painful but when I was passing through difficult times I thought of cancer patients in Afghanistan, especially those who had no money to pay for treatment and just had to wait to die. When I thought about them, I really understood how lucky I was.”

So what, realistically, can happen? And how quickly?

Soon after the London-based Afghan Women’s Support Forum started its social media activity about breast cancer the CEO of Alem Health, Mr Aschkan Abdul-Malek, got in touch. He wrote, “Our company provides high quality diagnoses for mammograms in Afghanistan through a network of over 400 US, EU, and India-based radiologists. There are plenty of facilities that perform mammograms in Kabul, but awareness on the part of patients is limited, and healthcare spending on screening and preventative care is quite low in general. The breast cancer cases we do see are all Stage 3 or Stage 4, whereas we’d like to diagnose things much earlier.”

He claimed that the problem was compounded by poor standards of service delivered by local radiologists and technicians. “When we first go into a facility, the images being taken by the technicians are often of unacceptable quality for diagnostic use, but we know somewhere a radiologist or someone else has been reading them, so we work with the technicians to get their skills to a global standard so our radiologists can confidently diagnose.

“A mammogram costs about $30 US for a facility to take. We charge a little less, in addition to having an Indian, European, or American doctor read it, usually within three hours. We don’t charge for any of the IT infrastructure, we’re fully private sector and work with private sector hospitals, so unlike aid projects, our entire budget for a year is a fraction of the cost of a Land Cruiser!”

But is an internet-based service really of significant value? Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world so paying for anything – diagnosis, treatment or aftercare – will put help beyond the reach of most women.

The good news is that in October 2014, something unprecedented happened; the country’s new First Lady, Mrs Rula Ghani, accepted Shinkai’s invitation to support the breast cancer campaign she had initiated.

In terms of credibility, that public commitment by the president’s wife was a game changer. Now, through the continuous efforts of Shinkai Karokhail and the First Lady’s Advisor on Health Affairs, Fawzia Alam, a variety of key players have started working together on cancer control. What was initially a loose alliance soon developed into the Afghanistan Cancer Control Coalition (ACCC).

Its co-ordinator, Dr Maihan Abdullah, said from Kabul, “The ACCC is an extraordinary alliance of organisations and individuals committed to working for cancer prevention and control. The political commitment alongside ACCC has given its members new hope in the fight against cancer. In a meeting with H.E. First Lady and the Health Minister, ACCC convinced the Minister to form a Technical Committee consisting of members from ACCC and the Ministry.

“It decided that a Cancer Centre was urgently needed and that efforts should be started as soon as possible for its establishment. ACCC members – a variety of public health specialist, midwives and surgeons  – vowed to provide their expertise voluntarily in the proposed facility and, in subsequent meetings, Dr. Zarghuna will participate from the UK, through Skype, to offer her recommendations.”


The Afghan Women’s Support Forum, a UK-based networking group is trying to focus attention on the issue. Its  eclectic membership, a loose alliance of individuals with an interest in Afghanistan and its women, was brought together by Baroness Fiona Hodgson.

Fiona, whose first visit to the country was nearly her last, escaped death by hiding in a wardrobe during the siege of the Intercontinental Hotel in 2011. But she has been back since and, like all members of AWSF, is conscious of how big a divide there is between what western women can expect when serious illness strikes and what happens in Afghanistan.

She said, “The group relies on its membership to provide intelligence about what issues are of most importance to Afghan women. We don’t want them to be forgotten. When Zarghuna told us about the lack of provision for identifying and treating breast cancer, and the human tragedies associated with that, it became a priority for us. I have several friends in the UK who have had breast cancer and it was further personalised for me because I know Shinkai, so this dreadful disease had a ‘human face’.”


Read Glyn Strong‘s original article in UK Progressive HERE.


‘A good place for women’ says First Lady Rula Ghani

images Turning down concerns about the future of Afghan women, First Lady Rula Ghani said the country was becoming a good place for women who have suffered various types of violence for years.

“It’s no longer a place you can say, oh, what a pity this girl was born in Afghanistan,” the First Lady told Fox News. “Afghanistan is starting to be a good place for a woman to be.”
She noted that currently the Afghan women were playing a major role in economic, political and social sectors.
Rejecting concerns that women’s situation would deteriorate in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of foreign troops; Ghani stated that she was hopeful about the women’s future in the war-torn country.
“There are a lot of very strong women,” Ghani replied when asked if she was the reason for the optimism.

She hoped the Afghan women would never return to their past.
The National Unity Government (NUG) had better programs to improve the situation of women, she said, adding that the implementation of such programs would change the course of history for women of the country.
Women in Afghanistan have suffered from several types of violence including forced and underage marriages, domestic violence, rape, and honor killings.

 Read article from TOLO NEWS HERE.

A New Day in Afghanistan – “Less fish and more fishing lessons”

“I come to you in peace.” Those were the opening words spoken by Mrs. Rula Ghani, the First Lady of Afghanistan, as she joined Mrs. Laura Bush for a meeting of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council Wednesday, February 11, at the Bush Institute. Mrs. Ghani has just been installed as an honorary co-chair of the Council, along with Mrs. Bush and the Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton. The visit marked Mrs. Ghani’s first official trip to the United States since becoming First Lady of Afghanistan writes Charity Wallace

At the Bush Institute, Mrs. Ghani stressed the start of a new day in Afghanistan. While keenly aware of Afghanistan’s ongoing challenges, she said too many news reports reaching the West focus on failures, rather than the many successes taking place inside a country that only 13 years ago began to emerge from years of occupation, war, and the harsh rule of the Taliban.

Mrs. Ghani described this moment in Afghanistan as being one of “positive change,” adding that the rest of the world should not give so much import to warnings of “imminent disasters.” She noted, wryly, that news reports bemoaned the fact that it took her husband’s new government three months to form a working coalition. And then she asked, how long did it take Germany’s Angela Merkel to form her coalition government? Four months.

Mrs. Ghani cited gains in security and improvements to the banking system to allow business to function better as two positive changes underway. “I am part of that change,” she added. While the previous first lady, Zenad Kharzi, spent most of her time raising her young children, Mrs. Ghani noted that her children are grown, and this allows her to take a more active role, adding, “I meet with 2-3 delegations a day from all over the country.”

Mrs. Ghani also noted that only 40 years ago, the people of Afghanistan lived in relative harmony and women were respected. Children, she said, “could entertain big dreams.” Today, women are beginning to regain some of that respect, being represented as poets, doctors, parliamentarians, teachers, and business owners. “The women of Afghanistan are articulate, savvy, and resourceful,” she explained, adding, “We have a long history of strong women.”

Mrs. Ghani also stressed the “keen empathy” that American women have shown for the fate of Afghan women. She said the greatest need is now in the provinces, as more urban middle and upper middle class Afghans pursue education and participate in the economy. Mrs. Ghani told the story of an old woman who began to learn to read via a mobile phone literacy program. “She said that she wanted to reach twelfth grade and then go to university.”

She added that Afghans want to become self-sufficient and not rely so heavily on foreign humanitarian assistance. She noted that one of her visitors told her, in the Dari language, “We need less fish and more fishing lessons.”

Just how much progress has already been made was on display Wednesday evening as Mrs. Ghani joined with the American University of Afghanistan, including University President Mark English and Board of Trustees Vice Chair Leslie Schweitzer in honoring Mrs. Laura Bush with a Doctorate in Humane Letters. Mrs. Bush helped launch AUAF during her ground-breaking 2005 visit to Afghanistan. From its beginnings in a war-torn building with 53 students, 52 men and one woman, it has grown to more than 2,000 students. Its incoming class is 52 percent women, and 12 percent of its graduates have been awarded prestigious Fullbright Scholarships. Students learn in the same style and environment as an American college campus; 2/3 of the professors are full Ph.D.s. The students have established everything from a co-ed basketball team to a program to work with Afghan children living in shelters to teach them how to read.

In her remarks, Mrs. Ghani said of Mrs. Bush’s efforts on behalf of Afghan women and the Afghan people, “She is someone who knows what the word commitment means.” Describing Mrs. Bush as “relentless and resourceful,” Mrs. Ghani added, “You don’t appreciate her power until faced with her achievements.” With her support of AUAF, Mrs. Bush has helped “introduce new systems of thought” to students while still allowing them to “enjoy their own culture. Introducing knowledge is always better done in a familiar setting.”

Onaba Payab, the female valedictorian of the class of 2014, presented the award to Mrs. Bush on behalf of all the students of AUAF, saying, “Thank you, Mrs. Bush, for caring about us. You have not forgotten us, and we have not forgotten you.”

During a question and answer session with AUAF Dinner Chair Heather Washburne after the award presentation, now-Dr. Bush said that the U.S. and Afghanistan face many of the same overall issues, noting that in any nation, “You never get to rub your hands together and say, ‘Well, we did that,'” when it comes to key issues like economics or education, “because there is always a new class of first graders coming in.” Mrs. Bush reminded the audience that even though the U.S. started with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it took us a very long time to end slavery and have civil rights. “Building a democracy is slow.” And many of the institutions that support democracy, like freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and rule of law, which we take for granted, take years to establish. She recalled a visit from a delegation of Afghan women just before she left the White House. “They told me, ‘Don’t feel sorry for us, just be with us.'”


Charity Wallace is Vice President of Global Women’s Initiatives at the George W. Bush Institute

Read Huffington Post article HERE.

First Afghan ‘First Lady’ Steps Into The Spotlight

Afghanistan was a different world when images Rula Ghani ( pictured) moved there from Lebanon as a newlywed in the 1970s. Untouched by war, its small middle class was open to the wider world.

She had met her husband, Ashraf, while studying political science at the American University of Beirut. He was an Afghan Muslim; she, a Lebanese Christian.

They would go on to make a life together — first in Afghanistan, then in America, where she got a degree from Columbia University and became an American citizen, and he taught at Johns Hopkins before moving on to the World Bank.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Ghanis returned to Afghanistan. And last year  Ashraf Ghani was elected president of Afghanistan.

In a country where women don’t have much of a presence in officialdom, much less a voice, Rula Ghani is the first to play a prominent role as first lady.

In an interview at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C., with Morning Edition host Renee Montagne, Ghani discusses the challenges facing Afghanistan, her opinion on the needs of the country’s most vulnerable populations and what she would like Americans to know about Afghanistan.

It’s actually quite exciting to be charting new waters and to try new things. I don’t mind the fact that I’m the first to have an office [in the presidential palace] and to try and receive people and listen to them. …

We really try to address the needs of the population. Of course, I’m especially interested in women, but I’m interested actually in any people that have concerns. I’m interested in vulnerable people, internally displaced people; I’m interested in helping the children that are on the streets; I’m interested in helping people in the far-flung provinces that are already cut off [from] services.

On her husband’s inauguration and his emotional and public thank you to her

It took me by surprise. I knew he was going to mention me, but I thought it would be just in passing. But it certainly moved me, like it moved the whole audience. And it’s exactly what I usually say I want to do for other women, is that I want them to become respected. I want here to say that I’m in awe of Afghan women. They’re very strong women, they’re very resilient. Yes, they’re going through very difficult periods and their situation is not a very easy one, but you have some extremely strong, articulate, dedicated women at all levels of society. So I usually cringe when I read in the press about “Oh, these poor Afghan women.” This is not the way you should describe them. They are very determined to make the best out of a very difficult situation.

On how important it is to have women in government — and parliament’s recent rejection of three women candidates for cabinet ministers

Symbolically, it would be very important, but practically, what would be best? Is it best to have four very weak women or … one very strong woman? There may have been like 21 ministers that were presented to the parliament, and only nine were accepted. So it’s not that the women were singled out, but they happened to have not passed the test of the parliament, and maybe you need to ask the parliament why.

On her effort to provide humanitarian aid to a remote Afghan region — and the need to do more

At this point, security is not really that good, so I’m not allowed to go, but some of my colleagues in my little office did go and do the distribution [of food, medicine and blankets]. … That project confirmed my conviction that humanitarian assistance is not the way. Yes, you have to do it in moments of crisis. …

It was successful. We got things done where sometimes it takes a couple of weeks for another organizations just because they were calling from my office, and we got things done in two hours. And on the ground, the local authorities were very helpful. … All of these locals, I think, were really very excited to be helping the first lady’s office. So it went very well, but it was a good experience to find out how much work it takes, how much effort, how much coordination, and there should be a better way to do it.

For that I have to wait for my husband. And then I encourage him.

On the great challenge facing Afghanistan now

It’s huge and it’s getting huger, the more you … dole out some humanitarian assistance instead of addressing the issue, finding land, building little townships with everything in terms of services, in terms of shops and mosques, community center, and in terms of attracting factories so that there would be jobs for the people to make a living. So it’s huge, it’s much huger than what my little office can do.

On being a Lebanese Maronite Christian in Muslim Afghanistan

Since the day I arrived in 1975, it has never been a problem. I’ve never felt out of sync. I’ve always known how to behave towards the elder, towards the younger ones, what to say, what not to say. So somehow I was accepted very quickly. And since our return in 2001, I haven’t had a problem either.

I remember very early on there was a group that had come, and they asked me how they should address me because there is various ways you can address. And by the end of the session, one of them just stood up and said, “Oh we could call you anything, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re my sister.” That really made my day.

On what she wants Americans to understand about Afghanistan

Afghans are not begging, are not coming with their begging bowl, [saying] “give us, give us.” But they need support. And this is probably what Americans can do is … show their support, especially to the Afghan women, but also to all the population. This is a very important time in the history of Afghanistan. We could be getting to a turning point where security might be established, economy might get much more flourishing and people might eventually get a much better life.

Don’t leave us right now. Be there. Help us, but don’t pity us. We are strong, we are a very determined people. And we’re going to try and make it.

Read NPR report HERE.

Rula Ghani looks set to challenge tradition

OSLO TIMES REPORT: Afghanistan’s new first lady Rula Ghani looks set to challenge the tradition of leaders’ wives staying out of the public eye.

In an interview with the BBC just days after moving into her new office in the presidential palace, Mrs Ghani said she hopes to encourage greater respect for women.

“I would like to give women out there the courage and the possibility to do something about improving their lives,” she said.

Mrs Ghani has already begun to break the mould.

During the election campaign of her husband, Ashraf Ghani – the eventual winner of the 2014 presidential race – Rula Ghani was the only candidate’s wife to appear in public.

(See more HERE )  And when the new leader paid an emotional tribute to his wife in his inauguration speech, it became a talking point for the whole country.

Mrs Ghani says it was a revealing gesture which summed up her vision of how attitudes to women could change.

“By mentioning me the way he did, my husband really showed exactly what I mean by helping Afghan women be more assertive, more conscious of their role, more respected.”

Mrs Ghani is clearly aware of the sensitivities in Afghanistan’s conservative society and says that her vision doesn’t contradict traditional values which are a keystone of Afghan life.

“I am not looking to change the existing social structure,” she said. “Having lived in the West, I have suffered from not having an extended family around me. And I think the fact that in Afghanistan the social fabric is still there, despite 25 years of civil war, I think it is a big plus.

– See more HERE.