The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan's First Lady

Have you ever seen Afghanistan's current first lady? Has anybody?

Throughout the time her husband has been in office, Zeenat Karzai has remained unengaged and hidden inside Arg -- the Afghan presidential palace. But in many ways, this might not have been expected. Even if she had no interest in politics, or no option to be active on behalf of other Afghan women, her training as a medical doctor might have motivated her to press the international community for help in developing medical technology and facilities inside the country, where hundreds of women still die during childbirth each year. Undoubtedly, Afghanistan has seen a lot of progress in women's rights under Karzai's government; women even have their own ministry now. Nonetheless, it would have had a far greater impact if the first lady had also taken part in rebuilding her country. (The rare photo above was taken during a meeting with Laura Bush inside the Presidential Palace in Kabul in 2006).

Zeenat Karzai could also have taken part in her husband's presidential election campaigns. Her participation may not necessarily have won more votes, but it would have sent a message to Afghan women that their first lady was not only aware of their problems, but also interested in working towards solving them. It would have assured them that she would work for their rights inside the presidential palace. But Mrs. Karzai did not, and with her husband's term ending in the next few months, her chance has passed.

In April, Afghans will elect a new president, and with him will come a new first lady. But even while the faces inside Arg will change, the hopes of Afghans, especially Afghan women, for a new reality may remain unrealized. The role of most Afghan women today does not extend beyond the walls of their own homes, and females working outside are not accepted easily. This is probably the biggest reason that after King Mohammad Zahir Shah's reign none  of Afghanistan's first ladies have been seen in public or active in society.

Nine candidates have registered for the Afghan presidential elections of 2014. Some of them do not have good records of allowing women their basic human rights, but if they win, they will be sworn to honor the Afghan constitution that safeguards them. And some information is known about the wives of several prominent candidates, such as Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, giving voters a sense of what kinds of first ladies they would be.

Ghani, the former finance minister who was listed among the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine in 2010 and was voted the No. 2 world thinker in 2013 by readers of Prospect magazine, is married to Rula Ghani, who he met in Lebanon, where he attended the American University of Beirut. On Saturday, March 8, Rula accompanied her husband to an event in support of Afghan women on International Women's Day and to a campaign event in Kabul where she delivered a short speech. According to Ghani's electoral campaign team, , during the event, women's rights activists applauded her presence as a positive gesture and called upon other potential first ladies to "follow her lead." 

As for Abdullah, his wife was not seen during his 2009 presidential campaign, though she stood next to him on election day to cast her vote. While it is unclear if the couple remains together or has separated, if the former is true, the women's rights activists who appreciated Mrs. Abdullah's public appearance in previous elections would have high expectations of her, should her husband win.

Another one of the frontrunners is Zalmai Rasoul, known as "Arg's candidate" and "Karzai's favorite." Yet, if he gets elected, Afghanistan will officially be deprived of a first lady because the 71-year-old former foreign minister is reportedly unmarried.

During the Tokyo conference in 2012, apart from holding "inclusive, transparent and credible" elections, fighting corruption and improving good governance and enforcing the rule of law, Afghanistan made a commitment to defending human rights. The presidential candidates have slightly touched on the women's rights issue during the campaign, but have not addressed it as one of their priority topics. Last month, women's rights activists called upon the presidential candidates to come up with more comprehensive plans regarding women's rights in Afghanistan. In order to keep the commitments made in Tokyo, Afghanistan's next first lady could do a lot in helping the next president of the country.

In Afghanistan's deeply traditional society, laws are still passed today that further diminish the basic human rights of women. Even though Karzai did not sign the law that would have prohibited family members from testifying as witnesses to crimes committed against women by male relatives, the law did pass through the parliament. Yet there are other examples of laws that are part of an effort of legally stripping women of their human rights, including: the Shia family law, which legalizes marital rape and bans wives from going out of their houses without their husbands' permission -- it was approved by lower house of parliament and signed by Karzai in 2009, though he later decided to review it after facing international criticism; the law that lowered the proportion of provincial council seats reserved for women from 25 percent to 20 percent; and the backlash by conservative members of parliament against the Elimination of Violence Against Women law. Ironically enough, the news of a possible approval of a law that legalizes the stoning of adulterers in Afghanistan came out on the Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Given the current situation in Afghanistan, it is hard to believe that any of the previously mentioned women or the other candidates' wives would come forward more often to take part in their husbands' presidential campaign. But at least one woman -- the woman who will become the first lady as a result of the 2014 elections -- will have the chance to play a prominent role in working for women's rights in Afghanistan. Even though there are no official duties assigned by the constitution to the first ladies of the country, it's time that the trend changes and the next first lady does not restrict herself to remaining obscure. It's time for the next first lady to start, not only actively hosting social events, but also actively participating in the development of the country and play the role of a good adviser to the president on pressing issues. She could advise the president on implementing programs for women's rights, furthering their economic independence and access to education, and enabling them with a greater voice in the law-making process.

Malali Bashir is an Afghan researcher and a former Fulbright scholar. She also writes for BBC Pashto, RFE/RL, and the DailyTimes. Follow her on Twitter: @MalaliBashir.