Afghanistan first lady Rula Ghani moves into the limelight

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Media captionAfghan first lady Rula Ghani speaking to the BBC's Sana Safi

Afghanistan's new first lady Rula Ghani looks set to challenge the tradition of leaders' wives staying out of the public eye.

In an interview with the BBC just days after moving into her new office in the presidential palace, Mrs Ghani said she hopes to encourage greater respect for women.

"I would like to give women out there the courage and the possibility to do something about improving their lives," she said.

Mrs Ghani has already begun to break the mould.

During the election campaign of her husband, Ashraf Ghani - the eventual winner of the 2014 presidential race - Rula Ghani was the only candidate's wife to appear in public.

And when the new leader paid an emotional tribute to his wife in his inauguration speech, it became a talking point for the whole country.

Mrs Ghani says it was a revealing gesture which summed up her vision of how attitudes to women could change.

"By mentioning me the way he did, my husband really showed exactly what I mean by helping Afghan women be more assertive, more conscious of their role, more respected."

Mrs Ghani is clearly aware of the sensitivities in Afghanistan's conservative society and says that her vision doesn't contradict traditional values which are a keystone of Afghan life.

"I am not looking to change the existing social structure," she said. "Having lived in the West, I have suffered from not having an extended family around me. And I think the fact that in Afghanistan the social fabric is still there despite 25 years of civil war, I think it is a big plus."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Mrs Ghani addressed a meeting during her husband's election campaign
Image caption Mrs Ghani will run her office from the presidential palace in Kabul

Meeting of minds

What makes Mrs Ghani stand out even more is the fact that she was born and brought up in a Maronite-Christian family in Lebanon.

She met Ashraf Ghani in the 1970s when they were both studying political science at the American university in Beirut.

Rula Ghani had just returned from a year's study at the prestigious Sciences Po institute in Paris where she was caught up in the 1968 student protests.

Her brother Riad Saade says the experience helped shape her social conscience.

"When she came back to Lebanon she went down south with a group of volunteers, building schools," her brother recalls, speaking to the BBC in Beirut.

Mr Saade says his sister and Ashraf Ghani were a natural match and shared common ideals.

"They have been fighting together all through their life in a very beautiful way. Whether it would be in their student days or his academic life, or at the World Bank or later in Kabul."

But their parents were nervous about Rula's choice so her father accompanied her to Afghanistan to meet her future husband's family.

"It was in winter. We stayed at the InterContinental hotel for a day, and Ashraf came and took us by car because the family was in Jalalabad," Mrs Ghani remembers.

The families got on and Rula's father was happy to give his consent.

"He was a very traditional person, yet had a very open mind," Mrs Ghani says. "And I would love for all Afghan men to become like my father or like my husband."

Image copyright Rula Ghani family
Image caption Rula Ghani as a student in 1969 after returning from France
Image copyright American University of Beirut
Image caption Ashraf Ghani as a student at the American University of Beirut in 1973

'Listening mode'

Visiting Afghanistan during the following years, Mrs Ghani remembers a very different place from now.

"Women were much more empowered. They were able to go to school, to think about careers. The educational system was extremely strong. So I think that there were many more things that women were able to do at that time."

In the late 1970s the couple moved to the United States where Ashraf Ghani completed his PhD and began a career at the World Bank, while Rula raised their two children.

The daughter, Mariam is a video artist and Tarek, the son, works on development issues.

"They are very proud of their heritage. They very clearly say that they are Lebanese-Afghan-American," Mrs Ghani says. "They do come often [to Afghanistan]. My daughter has done several workshops for artists and my son has worked on corruption issues. So they have contributed in their own way."

Image copyright Rula Ghani Family
Image caption Rula and Ashraf Ghani with their children, her late mother and brother Riad in 2012

Mrs Ghani's own contribution will come from her newly established office in the presidential palace and she says for the first three months she will be in "listening mode" finding out what's important for Afghans.

"I don't necessarily see myself as an activist, running down the street and knocking at every door," she says. "Besides I have reached a certain age where ladies stay at home more. I'm in my sixties and I see myself much more as a facilitator."

Mrs Ghani's cosmopolitan background seems a world away from the reality of many Afghan women in a country where domestic abuse is rife and women fleeing violence at home can end up in jail.

Rula Ghani is aware of the problems, saying they need to come out into the open.

"The women of Afghanistan must have the courage to talk about it. They should raise their voice to say, they don't like it and they won't accept it."

Mrs Ghani clearly realises that there are limits to what she can hope to achieve.

"There is a saying in Arabic meaning that every situation must be considered based on the realities on the ground," she says. "I can talk in some places freely, but not in others."

But she has a clear goal ahead.

"If I've achieved a higher respect for women and for their role in society then I would be very happy. That would really be my greatest wish."

Sana Safi, Carine Torbey and Kawoon Khamoosh contributed to this report

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