USAID, (The United States Agency for International Development) pledged $216 million to fund a major women’s empowerment program in Afghanistan. This is the largest women’s empowerment project in US government’s history. Newly-elected President Ghani has reaffirmed his commitment to invest in girls’ education, claiming that educating a girl will have it’s impact on the coming five generations. The funds will be spent through Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (Promote), which aims to advance the opportunities for Afghan women so they can become leaders in the political, private and civil society sectors. The main goal of the Promote program is to strengthen Afghanistan’s development by boosting female participation in the economy, supporting women’s rights groups, helping women gain business and management skills and increasing the number of women in the decision making positions within the Afghan government.
President Ghani’s wife, Rula Ghani, has been outspoken about her commitment to promote greater respect for women and advance women’s rights. As the country’s First Lady, Ms. Ghani’s role in expanding and supporting women’s rights represents both a threat and an asset for Afghan society. The mere fact that Rula Ghani is an American-Lebanese Christian poses serious opposition in a greatly conservative and Muslim society.
“This will be a first for Afghanistan that the first lady is seen in public and this can have a very positive effect on women,” said Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights advocate and member of Afghan parliament. “This is a male dominated society and a strong woman like her in the palace will make a huge difference. As an Afghan woman, I will be thrilled to see this great woman standing with our new president and advocate for women.”
However, this view is considered too progressive and it’s not shared by a great number of Afghans. According to Mawlawi Habibullah Hussam, an important religious scholar and imam in Kabul, Ms. Ghani’s public presence “can be fatal for the faith of Muslims in Afghanistan.”
A former member of Kabul’s provincial council and conservative who counts with a large following added: “The incoming first lady is not qualified … as she is a non-Muslim so she does not meet [Muslim] piety requirements… She is a foreigner so cannot be the confidant of a Muslim ruler. This is a very serious issue.”
Does Ms. Ghani represent a brighter future for Afghan women? There is a lot of speculation from both advocates and opponents within and outside the country in terms of her power as First Lady to push for girls’ education and gender equality. Former president Karsai’s wife, Zeenat Karzai, was also a well-educated woman, and a doctor by profession, but she never appeared in public with her husband nor worked in support of Afghan women. Ms. Ghani stands as a symbol of hope for many Afghan women who desire a better future for themselves. In the words of an Afghan writer, Asma, women in Afghanistan want Ms. Ghani to be more than a symbol: “Our new First Lady can prove this by showing her face, by asking Afghan women about their difficulties, and by becoming a public figure actively working for women’s rights.”
Thirteen years after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women in Afghanistan still face serious issues. In a country that has been described by many organizations as one of the worst places for women worldwide, the challenges ahead are substantial. Child marriage, lack of education, lack of economic opportunities, isolation, discrimination, sexual abuse and lack of judicial protection are just some of the many issues that women face daily in Afghanistan.
These inequalities within the society are deeply ingrained in religious dogma. Sharia Law heavily discriminates, punishes and treats women as inferior. In my first post, I raised the question of the role of religion in morality. I dare to raise the question again: up to what point is it acceptable to justify and defend religion when it so evidently discriminates and punishes women? Why do we accept this as normal or justify it by attributing it to a “cultural identity”?
I respect freedom of religion and I do believe that we should all be free to choose the path that makes us better human beings without harming anyone along the way. But how can a path that oppresses, penalizes, is prejudiced and violent against women ever be considered acceptable? I raise my voice against this injustice.
I truly hope that the Promote program is successful in giving a voice to the women in Afghanistan. Their focus is on women’s leadership, women’s participation in government and the economy and women’s rights groups and coalitions. If Rula Ghani wants a brighter future for Afghanistan’s women, she will work together with Promote and be an active advocate for women’s education, empowerment, and equality, and serve as an example for the millions of voices who are desperately crying for change.