Voices of Hope: The Influence of a First Lady

Learn more about Natalie Gonnella-Platts.
Natalie Gonnella-Platts
Director, Women's Advancement
George W. Bush Institute

In the nearly fifteen years since September 11, 2001, current and former First Ladies from countries around the world have leveraged their podium on behalf of the women and girls of Afghanistan.

Throughout modern history, First Ladies have served as vital champions of causes that improve lives.  From promoting wellbeing to taking a stand against injustice, spouses of government leaders have leveraged their unique platforms to advance the status of vulnerable populations and challenge the status quo at the community, country, and international levels.

Combatting the oppression of Afghan women is a poignant example of this influence.

In 2001, Mrs. Laura Bush became the first person other than a United States president to deliver the Weekly Radio Address.  A significant moment in the legacy of American First Ladies, she spoke to the need for all voices everywhere to join the fight against the brutality inflicted on Afghan women and girls by the Taliban: 

All of us have an obligation to speak out. We may come from different backgrounds and faiths — but parents the world over love our children. We respect our mothers, our sisters and daughters. Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is the acceptance of our common humanity — a commitment shared by people of good will on every continent.

Mrs. Laura Bush, November 17, 2001

A few days later, Mrs. Cherie Blair, wife of the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, also challenged customary practice, stepping into the political spotlight and adding her voice in solidarity with the women of Afghanistan: 

The women in Afghanistan are as entitled as the women in any country are to have the same hopes and aspirations for ourselves and for our daughters – a good education and career outside the home if they want one, the right to healthcare and, of course, most importantly, a right for their voices to be heard.

Mrs. Cherie Blair, November 19, 2001 

And in the nearly fifteen years since September 11, 2001, current and former First Ladies from countries around the world have leveraged their podium on behalf of the women and girls of Afghanistan. For example, Mrs. Bush has remained an enduring advocate for the rights and wellbeing of Afghan women both during (visiting the country in 2005, 2006, and 2008) and after her time at the White House.  Mrs. Blair has continued to speak out and supports female entrepreneurs in Afghanistan though her foundation work. Mrs. Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn Initiative is promoting girls’ education in Afghanistan.  Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan has highlighted the stories of Afghan women in her efforts to combat extremism and promote education.  Madame Bernadette Chirac of France visited with women and girls and opened a children’s hospital during her 2003 and 2006 visits to Kabul. The list goes on and on.

Yet despite the continued and very visible global support, sadly, the voices of the country’s own First Ladies have echoed silence. For nearly 90 years, wives of Afghan leaders have remained (for the most part) unheard and unseen.

That is, until President Ashraf Ghani was elected, and Mrs. Rula Ghani assumed the title of First Lady.

Just over a year into her role, Mrs. Ghani has expunged the standards enforced on her predecessors. As Afghan women continue their arduous fight for equal inclusion in society, it seems they can finally count their own First Lady among their ranks. 

Cited by some as a liability on the campaign trail and threatened by extremists, Mrs. Ghani has defied her critics, resiliently using her platform, like her global peers, on behalf of women and girls.  At home and abroad, she has reminded the world that they cannot forget the female face of Afghanistan. 

From local engagement to international speeches, Mrs. Ghani has wasted little time in taking action.   Case in point, in January of this year alone she played a highly visible role in challenging gender based exclusion and abuse. 

  • On January 11, Mrs. Ghani gave the keynote graduation address to more than 300 U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Promote Women’s Leadership Development students at Amani High School;
  • On January 20, the First Lady led the announcement of plans for Afghanistan’s first all-female University; and
  • On January 31, the President and Mrs. Ghani inaugurated the Trust Fund for Victims of Violence against Women, publicly giving the first personal donations and announcing that Cabinet Ministers had promised 15% of their month’s salary to the fund. Joining the Minister of Women’s Affairs, it was Mrs. Ghani who opened the event’s remarks, emphasizing “the special place that women have in Islam and Afghan culture,…and [the] important step towards eradicating violence against women in the country.”

We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope

With an introduction by Mrs. Bush, the book highlights the stories of extraordinarily resilient women and their struggles, successes, and resolve in present-day Afghanistan.

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Documenting the brave stories of women and gender advocates, We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope, seeks to spotlight the courageous efforts of those continuing the fight for gender equity in Afghanistan.  Mrs. Ghani joins these advocates as an important influencer combatting gender discrimination, exploitation, and bias in her country and across the globe:

One of my roles is to tell the world that they are very strong women, indeed living in very challenging conditions, showing a lot of resilience, a lot of resourcefulness, and that they need to be recognized for that, not for their weakness, their alleged weakness.

Mrs. Rula Ghani, May 2015

In the time since 9/11, Afghanistan has come a long way, but hard work remains, especially to ensure equal opportunities for all citizens.  Helping to forge a new path for her country, Mrs. Ghani serves as a bold reminder of the unique influence of First Ladies and the integral value of their efforts.