A new Afghan president: New hope for Afghan women?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The new president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, made a statement - and waves - when he mentioned his wife in his inauguration speech. The gesture was simple enough - he thanked her for her support of his campaign and promised that she would have an influence in his presidency - but in Afghanistan, a deeply conservative country with an entrenched tribal culture, it has sparked both hope and concern:
Ghani’s public acknowledgement of his wife Rula sends a positive message to Afghan women but makes others throughout Afghanistan uneasy.

The most important issues facing Afghan women today are security, health, and education, as well as social and economic empowerment.

Although the country’s constitution guarantees women’s right to be educated and to work, making advances in these areas still means confronting and challenging the conservative nature of Afghan society and family.
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But despite advances in education and political empowerment, Afghan women face a consistent struggle against the fundamentally conservative nature of the country.

Afghanistan has historically been a nation of traditional tribal values and the rise of Islam in the 8th century introduced further conservative beliefs and customs.
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Against this historical backdrop, the gains over the last thirteen years during the administration of former President Hamid Karzai have been immense in terms of the empowerment of Afghan women. Women have the constitutional right to work, to be educated, to vote, and to hold public office. Whether a woman wears a veil or not is up to her.
Both President Ghani and his former rival and now chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, made strong campaign promises to uphold and protect women’s constitutional rights going forward.
But what history shows us is that any progress in the empowerment of Afghan women has to be gradual and participatory.
The VOA article goes into the country's 20th century history a bit and is a decent primer. Rula Ghani sat down with the BBC for an interview shortly after her husband's inauguration that revealed her to have a progressive, but cautious, vision:
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.

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.
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Mrs Ghani's own contribution will come from her newly established office in the presidential palace and she says for the first three months she will be in "listening mode" finding out what's important for Afghans.

"I don't necessarily see myself as an activist, running down the street and knocking at every door," she says. "Besides I have reached a certain age where ladies stay at home more. I'm in my sixties and I see myself much more as a facilitator."
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But she has a clear goal ahead.

"If I've achieved a higher respect for women and for their role in society then I would be very happy. That would really be my greatest wish."

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