Why the Afghan First Lady has shocked fundamentalists
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard /Al Arabiya
Monday, 20 October 2014
It took months for Ashraf Ghani Ahmad Zai, now president of Afghanistan, and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah now the government’s chief executive to unify and agree on power-sharing, but still controversy surrounds them.
The legitimacy of the elections, the power-sharing terms and whether this coalition government can last for five years have been the most important questions asked in Afghanistan recently. All these questions are monitored by Afghans and observers but the public guards are quick to cut off any queries about the new president’s wife when he presented her to the public.
Talking about wives, daughters and female relatives is a big taboo in Afghanistan. Up until the last few weeks, Afghanistan’s problems were mainly limited to the fights against terrorism, corruption, the economy and healthcare. Today, the nation faces a culture shock; the president’s middle-aged, Lebanese-American wife Rola is seeking to have a public presence.
“A fight against fundamentalism is now more essential in Afghanistan than the fight against terrorism ”
For a country where a woman’s social activities are so limited and many are subject to harsh treatment and sexual violence in a male-dominated society, a stable public life for women is not easy and not welcomed by the majority of Afghans.
The life of Hamed Karzai’s wife, Zinat, who was a practicing obstetrician when she was living in Pakistan, has dramatically changed since became the president’s wife. She totally disappeared from public life and in a rare interview she gave to the BBC’s Persian service, she agreed on to talk but only if her face wouldn’t show.
Now Afghanistan has a president who lived most of his life abroad and was in the U.S., worked for the World Bank and is western-educated. Once Ashraf Ghani, at his inauguration, gave his wife a nickname, Bibi Ghol (Lady flower) the whole room turned to whispers and murmurs of disbelief at what they heard.
The hardliners and conservatives are already labeling Rola Ghani a Kafir (infidel) and are lining up against her. The conservatives are saying which Rola Ghani never publicly admitted her conversion to Islam and see her as a Christian advocate rather than a humanitarian helper. Whatever they think or act, there are certainly some women in Afghanistan who feel they can be liberated by showing support for the country’s new first lady.
Perhaps neighboring countries like Iran are not pleased by Rola’s performance. In front of the camera, in an interview with the BBC’s Persian service, Rola Ghani let her scarf slip down on her shoulders and adjusted it calmly while speaking about empowering women in a fluent Persian Dari accent. This kind of change and reform is not what exactly neighbors Iran or Pakistan would welcome.
An official from Iran’s foreign ministry once told me during the presidential election in Afghanistan that the election of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah would have a huge impact on neighboring countries especially Iran. He described Dr. Abdullah as a “western,” open-minded candidate and saw him as a big challenge for Iran if he were to become president. Iran didn’t openly support any of the candidates and claimed it was being neutral but I believe it secretly opposed Dr. Abdullah as he promised to sign a security agreement with the U.S. when he becomes president. An agreement which Iran sees as an ultimate threat for its national security. But both frontrunners Dr. Abdullah and Ghani vowed they would sign the U.S. security agreement but perhaps Iran didn’t believe Ghani would sign it as easily as he did on his first day in office.Not only did Iran feel disappointed and betrayed at this, now the conservative and the fundamentalist Afghans are shocked seeing the president’s wife all over the papers and news. Perhaps soon, Ghani will have to confront the fundamentalists that can’t tolerate his wife, along with the Taliban. While controversy over the legitimacy of his presidency remains an open question, if he dares to bring the changes which are necessary to Afghanistan he would achieve a lot. A fight against fundamentalism is now more essential in Afghanistan than the fight against terrorism.