Rula (Bibi Gul) Ghani
Country: Afghanistan

Rula (Bibi Gul) Ghani

First Lady of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Born and raised in Lebanon, the First Lady met her husband, President Ashraf Ghani, at the American University of Beirut. The couple married in March 1975, first settling in Kabul then traveling to the United States to pursue their education. They were blessed with two children, Mariam and Tarek. While living in the United States, Mrs. Ghani dedicated her time to the welfare of her family while holding a series of incidental jobs. She also volunteered at the World Bank Family Network, welcoming the families of staff newly hired by the World Bank Group. In 2002, once back in Afghanistan, she took an interest in understanding the social challenges in Kabul and concentrated on helping Aschiana, a grassroots organization focusing on the needs of the disadvantaged children in the city. After the election of her husband as President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in September 2014, she assumed the role of First Lady of Afghanistan. With the help of a small team of colleagues, she strives to create a positive environment in which every citizen of Afghanistan can achieve his/her potential and can take full part in the development of the country.

Afghanistan-Rula-(Bibi Gul)-Ghani

Since opening the doors to her office in October 2014, Mrs. Ghani has met with hundreds of her compatriots, concentrating on the most vulnerable among them. She sees her role as a listener, a facilitator, and an advocate. She strongly believes in women and youth’s aptitudes as agents of change and is proud of their achievements to date. The First Lady has also been instrumental in initiating discussions at a national level focusing on promoting social peace and responsible citizenship. She has encouraged women and youth to explore and debate the process of replacing the reign of terror with the rule of Law; of promoting mediation and conflict resolution instead of resorting to violence; of acting respectfully towards others while expecting the same respect from them; and of assuming responsibility for one’s environment whether within the family or towards the whole society. The First Lady holds a Diplome de I’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, France (1969), an MA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut (1974), and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University in New York (1983).

Afghanistan first lady Rula Ghani moves into the limelight 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. 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.

PC CREDIT: First Lady of Afghanistan Rula Ghani at Devex World 2018. Photo by: Devex

""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." Meeting of minds What makes Mrs Ghani stand out even more is the fact that she was born and brought up in a Maronite-Christian family in Lebanon. She met Ashraf Ghani in the 1970s when they were both studying political science at the American university in Beirut. Rula Ghani had just returned from a year's study at the prestigious Sciences Po institute in Paris where she was caught up in the 1968 student protests. Her brother Riad Saade says the experience helped shape her social conscience. "When she came back to Lebanon she went down south with a group of volunteers, building schools," her brother recalls, speaking to the BBC in Beirut. Mr Saade says his sister and Ashraf Ghani were a natural match and shared common ideals. "They have been fighting together all through their life in a very beautiful way. Whether it would be in their student days or his academic life, or at the World Bank or later in Kabul."

PC CREDIT: Afghan first lady Rula Ghani adjusts her head scarf during an interview with The Associated Press at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this Monday, May 25, 2015, file photo. R

But their parents were nervous about Rula's choice so her father accompanied her to Afghanistan to meet her future husband's family. "It was in winter. We stayed at the InterContinental hotel for a day, and Ashraf came and took us by car because the family was in Jalalabad," Mrs Ghani remembers. The families got on and Rula's father was happy to give his consent. "He was a very traditional person, yet had a very open mind," Mrs Ghani says. "And I would love for all Afghan men to become like my father or like my husband." 'Listening mode' Visiting Afghanistan during the following years, Mrs Ghani remembers a very different place from now. "Women were much more empowered. They were able to go to school, to think about careers. The educational system was extremely strong. So I think that there were many more things that women were able to do at that time." In the late 1970s the couple moved to the United States where Ashraf Ghani completed his PhD and began a career at the World Bank, while Rula raised their two children. The daughter, Mariam is a video artist and Tarek, the son, works on development issues. "They are very proud of their heritage. They very clearly say that they are Lebanese-Afghan-American," Mrs Ghani says. "They do come often [to Afghanistan]. My daughter has done several workshops for artists and my son has worked on corruption issues. So they have contributed in their own way." 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." Mrs Ghani's cosmopolitan background seems a world away from the reality of many Afghan women in a country where domestic abuse is rife and women fleeing violence at home can end up in jail.

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PC CREDIT: Ashraf Ghani. The couple met in Beirut and married in 1975. Photograph: Omar Sobhani/Reuters

Rula Ghani is aware of the problems, saying they need to come out into the Rula Ghani is aware of the problems, saying they need to come out into the open. "The women of Afghanistan must have the courage to talk about it. They should raise their voice to say, they don't like it and they won't accept it." Mrs Ghani clearly realises that there are limits to what she can hope to achieve. "There is a saying in Arabic meaning that every situation must be considered based on the realities on the ground," she says. "I can talk in some places freely, but not in others." 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." Could a high-profile first lady improve the lot of Afghanistan’s women? Rula Ghani, wife of recently elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, has enjoyed a remarkably high profile by the standards of the region. When Ghani delivered his inaugural address he surprised his audience by publicly addressing his wife, thanking her for her efforts in helping women, children, and the internally displaced persons (IDPs). This was in stark contrast to Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, whose wife Dr. Zeenat Quraishi Karzai remained virtually invisible during his long term in office. The fact that Ghani would publicly thank his wife has sparked hope in some quarters that women might be given a more prominent role in Afghanistan, with positive implications for women’s rights generally. But not everybody was happy: Hard-liners have expressed concern that the foreign-born, Christian first lady could pose a threat to Islamic values. Rula Ghani was born into a Lebanese Christian family, and is a dual citizen of Lebanon and the U.S. She met her future husband when they were both studying at the American University of Beirut, and the couple lived in Afghanistan for a few years after marrying in 1975. In 1978, Rula and her husband moved to the United States, where he pursued a Ph.D. while she raised their children. The family returned to Afghanistan in 2002, when Ashraf Ghani was appointed finance minister of Afghanistan. Rula was reportedly shocked to see the living conditions many Afghan children were enduring, and went to work for an organization called Aschiana, which helps feed and educate street children. Rula Ghani has often been compared to Soraya Tarzi, known as Queen Soraya, wife of King Amanullah Khan, who ruled Afghanistan from 1919. The queen – who received an honorary degree from the University of Oxford – was a target for criticism because of her perceived modernity. The queen served as minister of education, and sought to improve the lot of women in society. She established Afghanistan’s first school for girls and its first hospital for women. However, her liberal ideas on women’s roles in society as well as her appearance (including a penchant for short-sleeved dresses) incensed the religious right and was a factor in her ending up in exile with her husband in 1929. For her part, Rula Ghani has not given any indication of plans to upturn social norms in Afghanistan. Rather, she aims to revolutionize women’s roles within the current structure to improve their quality of life. Ghani has set up an office within the Presidential Palace to find ways to improve conditions for IDPs, who number around 750,000 in Afghanistan. Although women in Afghanistan have won more rights since the fall of the Taliban, they are still heavily restricted by objections to girls receiving an education and working outside the home. The literacy rate for females aged 15 to 24 is 32 percent, compared to 62 percent for males. Girls in rural parts of the country are less likely to receive an education. Rula Ghani apparently aims to change this, and encourage Afghans to realize the important roles that women play in society.

PC CREDIT: UAE-CONFERENCE-RIGHTS-WOMEN Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, also known as Bibi Gul, delivers a speech during a conference entitled "Investing in The Future: Building the resilience of women and girls in the Arab region on October 19, 2016, in the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah. / AFP / KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images)

However, even during her husband’s campaign her religious and educational background drew criticism. Mohammad Mohaqeq, deputy to the rival presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, has commented that Rula was out of touch with Afghan society since she is a foreigner. Her husband was questioned for having a Christian wife. More recently, Rula has been criticized for appearing to side with the French government’s ban on the niqab (face covering). The Presidential Palace of Kabul released a statement insisting that her words were taken out of context. A first lady who is visible, let alone politically active, is unusual for Afghanistan. Advocating women’s rights backfired for the exiled Queen Soraya. Decades later, Afghanistan is probably still not ready for radical change, but eyes will be on Rula Ghani to see whether she can bring about modest gains in the rights of Afghanistan’s women.

Afghanistan’s First Lady Rula Ghani on Advancing Reforms

From the Reign of Violence to the Rule of Law: The Role of Reform in Rebuilding Afghan Society Nearly four decades of warfare has eroded the rule of law in Afghanistan, leaving the country’s people with limited access to professional civilian police, state courts and other formal systems for securing justice. In his inaugural address, President Ashraf Ghani named the reform of such systems as a central goal. On May 13, Afghanistan’s First Lady Rula Ghani discussed her country’s history of violent conflict and recent progress and challenges in reforming the justice sector, including for women. As first lady, Rula Ghani pursues what her office describes as a mission “to foster a positive environment in which every citizen of Afghanistan can achieve his/her potential and can take full part in the development of the country.” That goal requires a strengthening of the rule of law. At USIP, Mrs. Ghani spoke on Afghanistan’s efforts in that direction. She joined a discussion moderated by the Institute’s vice president, Andrew Wilder. A native of Lebanon, First Lady Rula Ghani holds degrees from I’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, the American University of Beirut, and Columbia University. She returned with her husband, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, to Afghanistan after he was appointed finance minister in 2002. For years, she has been a leader in supporting thousands of Afghanistan’s poorest children through the Aschiana Foundation, which operates schools and social programs for orphans, street children and young people from disadvantaged families.

For The First Time, An Afghan First Lady Steps Into The Spotlight

Afghanistan was a different world when Rula Ghani 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 Sept. 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. Interview Highlights

On being a more public and politically active first lady of 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.

Outstanding Achievements

Following her address, the First Lady of Afghanistan HE Rula Ghani engaged the audience on a variety of issues ranging from women's rights to female participation in peace negotiations, governance and corruption to narcotics. In response to a question, the First Lady emphasised that women’s rights are human rights. Although this is a long process – ongoing in numerous sectors throughout the country – HE Ghani noted that the Office of the First Lady of Afghanistan is working to include women in the active management of Afghan society. Women have been advocates of ‘social peace’, including initiating the June 2018 ‘march for peace’ from Helmand to Kabul. HE Ghani highlighted the need for women to be involved in the Afghan peace process – which the Taliban are also aware of – with numerous women showing an interest in participation. This includes an Advisory Committee of 64 women formed within the Afghan government’s High Peace Council, a body involved with the country’s peace efforts. Additionally, while noting that the use of drugs is becoming more pervasive in Afghanistan, the First Lady stated that there is an increasing number of Afghan women whom are addicted to drugs. Among the initiatives that are aiming to combat this issue is a recently established drug rehabilitation centre for women, set-up by the First Lady’s office. In conclusion, despite stating that the media at times portrays a negative image of Afghanistan, in which the ‘glass is shown as half empty’, the First Lady highlighted the use of radio and mobile phones as important tools for communicating and addressing local problems of women in rural areas of the country. HE Rula Ghani is the First Lady of Afghanistan. Since assuming this role in October 2014, she has met with many of her compatriots, concentrating on the most vulnerable among them. She sees her role as a listener, a facilitator, and an advocate. She strongly believes in women and youth’s aptitudes as agents of change and is proud of their achievements to date. She holds a Diploma from Instituts d'études politiques de Paris and two Masters, one in Political Science (American University of Beirut) and the other in Journalism (Columbia University).

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