Cosmopolitan new Afghan first lady backs French veil ban

Afghanistan's cosmopolitan new first lady has backed France's controversial ban on the niqab, comparing the full veil to "blinders" as she prepares to campaign for more respect for women in her conservative adopted homeland.

Kabul: Afghanistan's cosmopolitan new first lady has backed France's controversial ban on the niqab, comparing the full veil to "blinders" as she prepares to campaign for more respect for women in her conservative adopted homeland.

Rula Ghani shocked Afghan observers earlier this year when she appeared with her husband during the country's presidential campaign, a rare example of a political wife sharing the spotlight.

Now the Lebanese-American of Christian heritage is set to carve out a role for herself as the patriarchal and deeply Muslim nation's first high-profile first lady.

In an interview at the presidential palace, Ghani, who speaks five languages, reminisced about her time as a student at the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris which she attended during the late 1960s.

Wearing a vintage Hermes scarf over her hair, she recalled in fluent French that "all the young women at Sciences Po had their headscarves which they would wear as they stepped out of school".

"When issues began to arise around the veil and hijab in France, I was a little shocked, people seem to not have a very long memory."

Wearing the full veil in public was banned by French law in 2011, igniting a fierce debate over the value of religious freedom against social cohesion.

Ghani said she supported the ban.

"Regarding the French law against the niqab and burqa which prevent women from being able to move freely and see, because the niqab is a bit like blinders, I am in full agreement with the government of France," Ghani told.

It is a typically forthright view from a woman of strong opinions who has already taken a far more prominent role than her predecessor, Zeenat Karzai, who was practically invisible during the 13-year rule of her husband Hamid Karzai.

Karzai came to power after a US-led coalition toppled the hardline Taliban government that banned women from leaving their homes without male guardians.

Ghani admits she is still trying to define her role, but hopes that by the end of her husband's five-year term, "men in Afghanistan will be more inclined to recognise whatever role their wives take".

"In one word, more respect," she said.

Her husband is already leading by example, praising his wife's work with internally displaced people, women and children during his September 29 inauguration speech.

 

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