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Rula Ghani – the voice of a nation

Rula Ghani

Rula Ghani is speaking out on women's rights. by USAID Afghanistan on Wikimedia Commons

Another surge of adrenalin for those who care about women. This time from Afghanistan. Rula Ghani, the First Lady of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, was in New Delhi recently to attend an international conference on ‘Gender, community and violence: changing mindsets for empowering the women of South Asia’. I intensely dislike the term, ‘First Lady’. In my opinion, it relegates a strong woman to a mere appendage. Arm-candy for the male protagonist, the ‘first man’.

Howsomever, in this particular instance, the official First Lady status of this particular, obviously strong Afghan woman is really important. She is seen as the voice of the nation. And she has dared to speak up, forcefully and firmly about and for the women of her country.

An enthralled audience held on to her every word. We are, after all, starved of and thirsting for stories of hope. Good news about Afghan women is not easily found. So Rula Ghani elevated the mood of the meeting considerably. Her narrative about Farkhunda, the 27-year-old woman from Kabul falsely accused of burning the Qur’an and beaten and stoned to death by a mob, has been reported by almost every newspaper in the world. The twist in the tale, in Rula’s interpretation, was the background information mere news reports left out. Rula told us that Farkhunda was murdered because she had the courage to confront the sellers of amulets in the courtyard of the Shahe Do Shamsira Mosque. She dared to challenge these men. She accused them of taking advantage of the vulnerability of worshippers who had come to the holy place in search of solace and salvation. The fabrication of falsehoods by vested interests whose profits are threatened is common. Hope springs from the little-known story that her death has led to a movement where Afghan women are inspired enough to declare ‘man Farkhunda hastum’ (‘I am Farkhunda’) when facing sexual harassment on the streets of Kabul and elsewhere in their country. The movement has mobilized huge protests and a strong demand for an investigation into Farkhunda’s murder, led by women’s groups.

Rula Ghani quoted a reputed Kabul journalist: ‘In a country where warlords and battlefield heroes were celebrated as national icons, suddenly Farkhunda had become a symbol for justice and women’s rights.’

Even more encouraging is the support from people in high places. Afghanistan’s acting Minister for Religious Affairs, Daiulhaq Abid, did not mince his words. Rather bravely for a public figure in a country crawling with Talibanesque-leaning men, Abid firmly proclaimed, ‘Not everyone who wears a turban is a legitimate religious scholar.’ This direct challenge to the legitimacy of self-appointed guardians of religion is an enormous leap forward for Afghan women’s rights.  

Afghan civil society, along with women’s groups, has unequivocally condemned the inaction by police and bystanders. The men paid to protect Farkhunda chose to remain passive. They were silent spectators to her death, complicit in the crime. In the aftermath of the universal condemnation, local and worldwide, the head of the Independent Human Rights Commission issued a notice underlining the urgent need for soldiers, police and security forces to receive an education sensitizing them on gender issues and protecting their citizens. One could probably add judges, politicians and men in general to that list. Not merely in Afghanistan, but globally.

Does this mean the tide will turn for Afghan women, under siege for decades now? Islam has iconic women to serve as role models. These women’s stories deserve recognition and elevation in educational institutions so that fundamentalism can be curbed. The voices of ancient Islamic women scholars should lead the way forward. Peace be upon the movement. And may the force be with them, too.

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