One of the best moments of my life was meeting our First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, when she was in Washington, DC in February. I was invited to a Smart Women Smart Power event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies to meet her because of my work for women’s rights in Afghanistan. 

While we were shaking hands I said that I liked how she speaks her mind, and she responded:  “To speak your mind, you need to have a voice.” I felt a connection with Mrs. Ghani.  We grew up in different eras and countries, but like her, I feel a responsibility to Afghanistan and its future. I think we both feel the pains of Afghan people and we want to help them.

Our First Lady has important ideas and plans for Afghanistan and I am positive she will implement them. Mrs. Ghani wants all Afghan women, including those in far villages, to have equal opportunities.

She told me that instead of saying Women’s Rights, we should say Respect Women. She said by talking about women’s rights, we sometimes make men defensive and they think, What about men’s rights?

I respect her idea on this. But women’s rights will not improve if we don’t talk and write about them. I  thank her for showing the world a glimpse of a future for Afghanistan that is better than today. Many people think of Afghanistan as a torn country with women in blue burqas being beaten. People need to understand the history and see that there is more to our country. Afghan women are heroes, not just victims.

I remember when a French woman who worked with my sister was leaving Afghanistan to go back home and she cried over the strength of Afghan women. She said Afghan women are under so much pressure—taking care of children and families and living in their traditional society—yet we laugh and smile all the time. She said other women can learn about resistance, courage, and patience from Afghan women. Afghan women are smart, talented, and strong, she said, and despite their problems, they shine and progress.

Women in our history

I learned in my history books about Goharshad Begum, the wife of Shah Rukh, Emperor of the Timurid Empire during the 15th century in my hometown of Herat. She participated in all decision-making with her husband. Goharshad Begum built a school for girls in Heart, and women’s lives improved vastly during that time.

Many Afghan women have been leaders in politics and society. Mrs. Ghani shared an example of Queen Soraya, who was Minister of Education as well as the founder of the magazine Guidance for Women and the first girls’ school in Kabul. As the wife of King Amanullah Khan, Queen Soraya reformed Afghanistan’s education system in the early 20th century and established an exchange program for Afghan youth to study abroad.  President Ghani was one of the students who benefited from this program.

There are many women role models today: Fowzia Koofi, a member of Parliament and women’s rights activist; Maria Bashir, a public prosecutor from Herat province; Habiba Sarabi, the governor of Bamyan; Shakila Ebraihmkhi, a TOLO TV reporter; Nilofar Rahmani, the first female pilot of Afghanistan in 30 years; and hundreds of other Afghan women.

Women shaped our literature. Poets such as Makhfi Badakhshi, Nadia Anjuman, Rabia Balkhi, Mahjouba Herawi, Nazo Ana, and Aisha Durani left us incredible poems and stories of courage. History proves that despite inequality, discrimination, violence, and oppression, Afghan women have not given up, but  fought, adapted, and moved forward.

My mother is an example. She worked hard to send me and my sisters and brothers to school. She didn’t want us to follow her path and not learn to read or write.

Women have an important role in shaping men’s behavior. That is why I think that Mrs. Ghani can have a strong role in convincing President Ghani about the importance of women’s participation in government and society. 

I thank Mrs. Ghani for being such a great role model. When the Taliban were in power we didn’t know who our leader was. We knew his name, Mullah Omar, and that he was blind in one eye.

Nobody dared to talk about his wife.

Although our former President Karzai is a supporter of women’s rights, all I remember of his wife, Zenat Karzai, are two photos, one of her in a green outfit, and one from International Women’s Day when she sat quietly among other women. She never gave a public speech.

But now we see and meet our First Lady. Mrs. Ghani gives us courage by showing up in the media and in public. She tells all Afghans that she and her husband care for them. This gives the world another perspective on Afghan women. People have seen Mrs. Ghani on TV and have listened to her speeches. To build a real trust and relationship with the Afghan people and show the world the strength of women in Afghanistan, she needs to leave the palace and spend time with the people. 

Mrs. Ghani asked me and all Afghan students who have finished our educations abroad to return to Afghanistan and serve our country. I told her that our biggest concern and fear about going back is security. We all love our country. We will go back when our government supports us and provides us safety and security. 

By Marzia

The writer is working abroad. 

Photo: Norway MFA/ Kilian Munch