For The First Time, An Afghan First Lady Steps Into The Spotlight : Parallels In a country where women are seen but not often heard, Rula Ghani intends to play a prominent role. The wife of Afghanistan's new president hopes to help the country's most vulnerable people.
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For The First Time, An Afghan First Lady Steps Into The Spotlight

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

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

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Well, Afghanistan was a different world, one untouched by war, when Rula Ghani arrived there as a newlywed in the 1970s. She had met her husband while studying political science at the American University in Beirut. Ashraf Ghani was an Afghan Muslim; she, a Lebanese Christian. They went on to make a life, first in Afghanistan, then America, where she earned a master's degree at Columbia and he made a career at the World Bank. After 9/11, like those cricket stars Phil just spoke of, the Ghanis returned to Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani became a major political player and, last year, president. This week, first lady Rula Ghani paid a visit to Washington, D.C., where she sat down with us at the Afghanistan Embassy.

Ms. Ghani, good morning.

RULA GHANI: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Do you have a role model for first lady of Afghanistan?

GHANI: Actually, I don't. 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 and to try and receive people and listen to them.

MONTAGNE: You have an office in the presidential palace.

GHANI: Yes, and 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 really cut out of services.

MONTAGNE: Your husband, you could say, made waves when at his inauguration he not only announced that you would be playing a role, that people would see you, but also, and with some emotion, he thanked you for being at his side. That's obviously very natural here in the U.S. In fact, it's expected. But in Afghanistan, that was entirely new.

GHANI: It took me by surprise. I knew he was going to mention me, but I thought it would be just passing. But it certainly moved me. And it's exactly what I usually say I want to do for other women, is that I want them to become respected. 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.

MONTAGNE: I know that you have overseen getting some food and medicine and blankets to a very remote province where, some months before, it had been hit by floods. How much can you actually yourself get out into these areas?

GHANI: 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. That pilot project, it was not very large. We helped maybe 2,000 families. That project confirmed my conviction that humanitarian assistance is not the way. Yes, you have to do it in moments of crisis.

MONTAGNE: When you say convinced you, that's so interesting. In other words, you did it.

GHANI: Yes.

MONTAGNE: It was successful in that moment.

GHANI: Oh, yeah, it was a successful. You know, we got things done where sometimes it takes a couple of weeks for other organizations just because they were calling from my office, and we got things done within two hours. The local authorities were very helpful - you know, representatives of the police, a representative of the governor, the Red Cross. You know, all 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. (Laughter). And then I encourage him.

MONTAGNE: That does, in some ways, speak to the great challenge of Afghanistan...

GHANI: Of course.

MONTAGNE: ...Right now.

GHANI: Of course. It's huge, and it's getting huger. The more you kind of just 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, a 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.

MONTAGNE: I'm speaking to Rula Ghani, who is the first lady of Afghanistan. You were born in Lebanon. Your family is Maronite Christian. Do you think most Afghans think about that or are even are concerned about that in a Muslim country?

GHANI: Since the day I arrived in 1975, it has never been a problem. 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, you know, various ways you can address. And by the end of the session, one of them just stood up and said, oh, you know, we could call you anything, but as far as I'm concerned, you're my sister. That really made my day.

MONTAGNE: You lived many years in Washington, D.C. During those years, you became an American citizen, which makes you Lebanese-American-Afghan.

GHANI: Are you asking me if I am schizophrenic?

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Well, I was just wondering, is there something you would want to, you know, say to Americans that you understand that they don't understand about Afghanistan?

GHANI: Afghans are not begging, are not coming with their begging bowl, give us, give us. But they need support. And this is probably what Americans can do, is give their - 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.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for sharing this with us.

GHANI: You're welcome.

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