The last time an Afghan political leader’s wife caused so much frenzy was in 1919 when Amanullah Khan ascended the throne. His wife, Queen Soraya, was subjected to scrutiny for her modern ideas and European sensibilities.
The daughter of a reformist Afghan intellectual and a well-educated Syrian lady, the queen believed women should shed the veil, and that a man could – and should – have only one wife. These were radical ideas in a country still mired in centuries’ old tribal customs.
As Ashraf Ghani assumes the Afghan presidency after a protracted election dispute, all eyes have now shifted to another Levantine woman; his Christian-born Lebanese wife, Rula Saade, whom he met during his student days at the American University in Beirut. (She is now known as “Bibi Gul”.)
During the campaign, some critics claimed Ghani’s wife would be a liability – conservative elements within the Afghan population, they argued, would not tolerate a Christian consort for a political leader.
Even after his inauguration, one analyst included “what to do about his wife” among the top five challenges Ghani would face during his term – that’s after security, employment and whether or not to talk to the Taliban.
But in his inaugural address, Ghani channeled the memory of other Afghan women who have played positive high-profile roles in Afghan society, culture and politics throughout history – inviting inevitable comparisons with the ill-fated Queen Soraya.
Many royal women have played proactive and vital roles throughout Afghan history.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank my partner and wife for her support to me and Afghanistan. She has always helped IDPs [internally displaced people], women and children and I am sure that she will continue to do so,” he said, in an emotional tribute that shocked many Afghan listeners unaccustomed to having one’s wife acknowledged publicly.
Ghani’s words recalled King Amanullah’s speech in 1926 when he declared: “I am your king, but the Minister of Education is my wife – your Queen.”
Queen Soraya, who dressed in European fashions and went hunting on horseback with her husband, held an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. Her mother, the Syrian-born Asma Rasmiya Tarzi, launched Afghanistan’s first women’s magazine that featured stories about successful women in history and women’s elevated place in Islam.
An accomplished academic in her own right – and fluent in English, French, Arabic and Persian – Mrs Ghani is expected by Kabul’s nostalgic elites to restore the nearly forgotten role of Afghan “first lady”. It was a role that the former President Hamid Karzai’s obstetrician wife, Zeenat, was reluctant – or not permitted – to fill. Karzai, whether out of a belief that a woman’s place is at home, or to please conservative elements in Afghan society, kept his wife away from the public eye.
But if all the local and international media hype is to be believed, the new first lady has every intention of fulfilling that function and boost Afghan women’s efforts to participate in the country’s political and social life in a more meaningful manner. And for those who bother to remember, there have been many precedents in Afghanistan.
“Many royal women have played proactive and vital roles throughout Afghan history,” said Helena Malikyar, an Afghan historian and a great-granddaughter of King Habibullah (father of King Amanullah Khan).
“From Zarghuna Ana, mother of the founder of modern Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, to Bibi Halima, wife of Amir Abdul Rahman to Queen Soraya, these are prime examples of women who have been engaged in the country’s affairs outside of the harem.”
Today, 15 years after the ouster of the Taliban, 20 percent of seats in the Afghan parliament are reserved for women. In the 2010 elections, 69 women won seats in the country’s 249-seat parliament.
But is it fair to draw such parallels between a woman from the turn of the last century when Afghanistan was a largely isolated land at the beginning of its journey toward modernisation, and a woman of the 21st century when many Afghans are connected to the world through Internet, satellite television and massive global interaction?
Over the phone from Kabul, Princess India d’Afghanistan, the youngest daughter of King Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya, told Al Jazeera: “My mother was not just Queen, she was also the minister of education. She opened the country’s first school for girls, and set an example to the other families by allowing her two eldest daughters – my sisters – to attend. The school still stands today. It started off with 20 girls, and a year later, they had already 700 students.”
|Queen Soraya of Afghanistan [Getty Images]|
Much progress was made since Queen Soraya’s forerunning days in the 1920s, and several women have treaded along the road she paved. The last Afghan monarch, Zahir Shah, is credited with launching a movement for women’s emancipation in 1959, when his wife, Queen Homaira, daughter, Princess Belquis, and his sister, Princess Zaynab, appeared in public without a face cover.
During the Communist rule in the 1980s, Anahita Ratibzad and Surraya Parlika were among the women who played substantive roles both in party politics and in the humanitarian and social arenas.
A decade later, during the “holy war” against the Russian invasion, it was the glamorous polyglot Fatima Gailani, daughter of the spiritual leader Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani and Princess Adela, who played a visible role as spokesperson for the mujahideen in London.
Princess India believes that despite all that transpired, and some of her harshest critics, Queen Soraya remains a positive figure in contemporary Afghan history.
“My mother’s achievements are still highly regarded by Afghans, and remember, she managed to have 10 children during this time,” she says. “Her speeches are remembered by people even now. How she encouraged Afghan women to become independent, to learn how to read and write.”
“She was also a very beautiful woman. Just look at her photographs…” said Princess India.
But if Queen Soraya is a tough act to follow, some might caution against emulating her model at all. After all, was it not, in part, her “progressive ideas” that landed her and her husband in exile in Italy in 1929?
A popular uprising led by a rabble-rousing Habibullah Kalakani, who exploited the people’s discomfort with rapid modernisation, forced the reformist King Amanullah Khan to abdicate. (Kalakani’s campaign was fuelled by British agents who distributed a photo of Queen Soraya in a 1920s-style sleeveless evening dress.)
The place of a “proper” Afghan wife – and first lady – remains a fiercely debated topic in Afghanistan. Some look back upon Queen Soraya’s days with hope, but others view it as an assault on Afghanistan’s traditional ways.
Mawlawi Habibullah Hussam, a religious scholar and imam in Kabul, has reportedly said that Rula Ghani’s presence in the presidential palace “can be fatal for the faith of Muslims in Afghanistan“.
“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,” he said.
But others have a different take.
“Islam does not prohibit a Muslim man from marrying a Christian woman,” said Malikyar, who has a degree in Islamic Studies from New York University. “In fact, one of Prophet Mohammad’s (BPUH) wives, Maria al-Qibtiyyah, was an Egyptian Coptic Christian and she bore the Prophet a son.”
She adds: “And one of the greatest Khalifas in Islamic history, the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent, had a Ukrainian woman as his queen.”
Asked what advice, what words of caution, she would offer the new first lady, Princess India did not hesitate: “I’d tell her not to be ashamed. She must have courage, and patience. Above all, she must not conceal her good works. She must conduct her activities in public and give no importance to idle talk or critics. The people must know that there is a woman, the wife of the president, who is working for women’s causes.”