Afghanistan passed a big milestone Sept. 29 with its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power. But just as remarkable to many Afghans was the inauguration event for the new president, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
Not only was his wife, Rula Ghani, at the swearing-in ceremony, he also warmly thanked her for supporting him and announced she would be active as first lady in humanitarian causes. This would not be unusual in most democracies. But in deeply patriarchal and conservatively Muslim Afghanistan, the gesture was a stunner. The previous first lady, Zeenat Karzai, was rarely seen in public, just the kind of obscurity widely expected of Afghan women.
The new president’s open gratitude to his wife, a well-educated Lebanese-American, sends a signal about the continuity of progress for women in Afghanistan since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban. Some 40 percent of all schoolchildren are girls, for example, and a quarter of parliament members are women. Yet his gesture also helps balance reports about the thousands of women mistreated in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State group.
On Sept. 25, for example, IS executed a female human rights lawyer, Samira al-Nuaimy, one of many atrocities reportedly committed by a radical group attempting to impose strict rules on Iraqi and Syrian women in the name of Islam.
President Obama, in his Sept. 10 speech justifying American airstrikes on IS, summed up the militants this way: “They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage.”
Countering the many impositions on Muslim women remains a crucial element in the creation of more free and pluralistic societies in Islamic nations. In Pakistan and Indonesia, women have served as top elected leaders (although in part because they were daughters of legendary fathers who ruled). Such examples give hope to young Muslim women. But just as important is challenging the anti-female ideology of jihadist groups like IS.
In a recent article in the publication Foreign Policy, two former CIA analysts, Tara Maller and Aki Peritz, asked why the sexual violence of IS does not receive more attention. “Why isn’t this crime against humanity getting more consistent attention in the West?” they wrote. “Those covering war may be more inclined to cover airstrikes, beheadings, and market bombings because they are historically viewed as ‘hard’ security issues, while threats to women and children tend to be viewed as ‘softer’ humanitarian concerns.”
On Sept. 24, a group of more than 120 international scholars of Islam issued a 28-page report refuting the ideas of IS, including those about women. The scholars pointed out where IS gets it wrong: “In simple terms, you treat women like detainees and prisoners; they dress according to your whims; they are not allowed to leave their homes and they are not allowed to go to school.... Nor are they allowed to work or earn a living; nor allowed to move about freely and they are forced to marry your fighters.”
Against such behavior, the words of the new Afghan leader about his wife stand out like a white badge on a black burqa. Progress often comes in such a soft-spoken manner.