KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s first lady has broken numerous conventions in a society that traditionally sequesters women behind closed doors — speaking out on issues such as violence against women, the rule of law and the power of religion. But perhaps Rula Ghani’s biggest taboo breaker is simply being the country’s first presidential spouse in decades to be seen and heard in public.

When her husband, President Ashraf Ghani, took the helm of the nation eight months ago, he did something unprecedented — he introduced his wife in his inaugural speech.
From that moment on, Rula Ghani has done what first ladies often do in democracies, attending public events alongside her husband and speaking before audiences on current issues. But her words have always been soft-spoken, measured and delivered away from the center stage of the Afghan political scene.

“I don’t do politics,” she tells The Associated Press. What she does do, she says, is listen.

Since September, hundreds of people have streamed through her cool, wood-paneled meeting room to share their problems and seek the first lady’s advice. She says she sees herself as “a counsellor … a listening post” — someone fulfilling a need for a feminine presence close to the heart of the Afghan government.

The last time Afghanistan had a first lady with such a public profile was almost a century ago, but few today remember Queen Soraya, who was forced into exile in 1929 after King Amanullah abdicated. Soraya’s modern approach to women’s issues and her refusal to wear a veil shocked many Afghans, and history texts hold her partly to blame for the demise of the monarchy.

Zinat Quraishi Karzai, the wife of President Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, was called the “invisible first lady” and in one of her rare interviews, she said Afghanistan wasn’t ready to see a first lady at her husband’s side.

Rula Ghani begs to differ and insists that Afghanistan is going through profound change. “I seem to have answered a need that was there. I think previous first ladies were not accessible,” she says. “And I am accessible.”

The learning curve has been steep and she learned from her missteps.

Early on, she was quoted as approving France’s ban on the all-encompassing women’s veil, known as the burka or niqab — comments that were taken out of context, she says. A ferocious backlash from conservative and religious figures followed, and her husband’s political enemies claimed she and her children were neither Afghan nor Muslim and as such unacceptable to the Afghan people.

But she is Afghan, as well as American and also Lebanese by birth — a heritage that has given her fluency in English, French, Arabic and Dari.
Born in 1948, she was brought up in a Christian family and met her future husband at the university in Beirut. After they were married, the couple moved to the United States, where they lived for 30 years. She studied journalism at Colombia University and had two children — daughter Mariam, who is an artist in Brooklyn, and son Tarek, an economist who also lives in the U.S.

The Ghanis returned to Kabul 12 years ago, “so I have some inkling of what is happening” in Afghanistan, she said.

She has resisted the expectations of others — such as suggestions she become an advocate for women’s rights in a country regularly labelled as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Her inclusion in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2015 was flattering but premature, she said, recalling Andy Warhol’s quote that everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.

“What I’ve said from the beginning is that I am going to try to help all the vulnerable populations in Afghanistan — and to a certain extent that’s the majority of Afghanistan,” she said.
Inevitably, women are the focus of her work, though she denounces what she says is a Western media portrayal of Afghan women as victims of misogynistic social and religious traditions.

“One of my roles is to tell the world that they are very strong women, indeed living in very challenging conditions, showing a lot of resilience, a lot of resourcefulness, and that they need to be recognized for that, not for their weakness, their alleged weakness,” she said.

The overarching problem in Afghanistan, she said, is that after more than 30 years of war, violence has become the norm. And it is the Afghan women — sold into marriage and often beaten or killed with impunity, despite constitutional protections — who are the most vulnerable.

“The whole fight to reduce violence against women is within the fight of reducing (all) violence, period. It is within the process of trying to bring back peace to this country,” she said.

She cited the “horrible, barbaric tragedy” of Farkhunda, a woman beaten to death in March at a Kabul shrine by a frenzied mob after being falsely accused, by a peddler who portrayed himself as a mullah, of burning a Quran. The attack sparked protests in Afghanistan and reverberated around the world, highlighting the brutality women face in the country’s conservative society. Earlier this month, four defendants in the case were sentenced to death and eight to 16 years in prison each. Eleven policemen charged with dereliction of duty for not preventing Farkhunda’s death were sentenced to one year each in prison.

The case has “shaken the nation,” she says. It has also “really opened up the eyes of people … we don’t want to live in a society in which violence is the rule.”

In her meetings, she says she has seen indications that Afghans might be turning the corner. “I see it from the people who have come here, and how they are starting to raise certain issues that they didn’t raise before — such as whether or not women should be able to walk in the street without being harassed,” she added.

It’s about getting back to respect — something she says is “embedded in Afghan culture,” despite the layers of war, poverty and discrimination.

“If you have a harmonious society where people within the family are living in harmony … knowing what their responsibilities and duties are, and knowing how to resolve their issues and their conflicts without violence, then violence against women will be reduced, and women will feel they have a voice,” she says.