Where Are You Zeenat?
Afghan history is full of enthralling female characters, who broke gender taboos and whose lives were coloured by the drama that became the fuel of good folklore, and served many an exciting bedtime story for the generations that would come after. The 10th century poetess Rabia Balkhi is the first lady of Old Persian poetry who, legend has it, wrote her final poem in her own blood on the walls of the bathhouse where she had been imprisoned by her brother for falling in love with his slave. Queen Gawharshad of the 15th century transformed the western city of Herat into the fabled Timurid capital and bastion of eastern civilization from where she ruled a vast empire, and became the patron of a boom era in art and architecture, much of which still stands in Herat today.
In the early 20th century, the Afghan Queen Soraya’s progressive views and modernizing efforts are considered to have played such a pivotal role in politics at the time as to be responsible for the abdication of her husband, King Amanullah Khan. Queen Soraya set historical precedent not only for Afghanistan but for the entire Muslim world when she appeared next to her husband in public. Once Amanullah was crowned king in 1926, she attended every major state event at his side, went on tours abroad with him, attended diplomatic dinners, and was present at military parades. She was apparently an avid hunter and horseback rider. Well educated, she was Amanullah’s one and only wife, and she pushed for the education of Afghan women and girls at a time when this was a mostly novel struggle throughout most of the world. During her reign, the first small group of Afghan women received higher education, traveling abroad to Turkey to study. Soraya gave public speeches directed at women, encouraging them to take part in nation building and to seize their rights.
To this day, Queen Soraya remains a figure prominent in the minds of Afghans, an inspiration to women who were told stories from their mothers or grandmothers of her pioneering reforms; just as she was a threat to the conservative establishment who also recall her power and influence and the shocking sight of the queen photographed sitting among powerful foreigners and politicians in her short-sleeved flapper dress, fashionable during the Jazz Age. Here was a woman free of shackles, fearless and independent, sitting at the same table as the men, talking to them as an equal. It was indeed revolutionary.
Looking back at 1920s Afghanistan, it is all the more remarkable that today’s first lady is virtually invisible, occupying no role whatsoever in the country’s political landscape. Zeenat Karzai, the wife of President Hamid Karzai, has made no significant public appearance in the decade that her husband has ruled. She’s rarely ever been interviewed by the media at home or abroad, has rarely spoken in public, or even attended the likes of a ribbon-cutting ceremony. As far as anyone knows, she spends her days inside the presidential palace as a stay-at-home mom.
Born Zeenat Quraishi, she is a Pashtun from Kandahar, like her husband. According to the public record, she studied medicine at Kabul University, and thereafter spent many years in Pakistan where she ran a gynaecological practice in Quetta among the Afghan refugee community. Her father was a civil servant, and Zeenat trained as an obstetrician. Reportedly wed in an arranged marriage in 1998 or 1999 (Hamid Karzai by then in his forties), she gave up practicing medicine after marriage. She and the president (her distant relative) have one son, Mirwais, born in 2007. This information accounts for the extent of what most Afghans know of their first lady, in stark contrast to most other countries where the personal and professional lives of the spouses of heads of state are intensely scrutinized.
In one of the few interviews ever carried out with the first lady, Zeenat reports that while she no longer works as a physician (in a country in rather desperate need of medical services), she does wish to "help Afghan society on a macro level, not just in medicine but in the areas of education and the national elections. I would like to educate people on their civic responsibilities." She expressed support for the need to strengthen women’s rights, remarked on the significant improvements for women since the fall of the Taliban, and recalled the dark years of Taliban rule:
During the Taliban we couldn't even go to school,” adding, “It is not perfect but it will improve as time goes on. Education is the key. If women were educated and men were educated, they could have a normal life.
Such statements may seem at odds with her husband’s public position, in his advocacy for negotiation with the Taliban and his reference to the Taliban as “our Afghan brothers,” to the chagrin of many an Afghan woman, not to mention the Afghan men fighting and dying on the battlefield against the Taliban insurgency.
In the same 2004 interview mentioned above, Zeenat responded to the criticisms that she has little public role, saying the culture is conservative and it may offend people. She reported wanting to help Afghan women “but is constrained by her position.” In a 2009 BBC article, a friend of the first lady, a woman named Shahida, reports saying to her, “’You are his wife' I said, 'educated, a medical doctor. You should help women.'" Mrs. Karzai reportedly replied, “my husband doesn't like it. I cannot go out without his permission.”
The president, however, tells a different version of events. At an International Women’s Day event in Kabul in March 2011, when the president once again turned up solo, the women present asked him why his wife was rarely seen publicly and in response, he joked that he is "oppressed" by his wife:
I am oppressed at home, you can ask," … "The authority is hers. She had the choice to come or not. Had I forced her to come, that would not have been good.
The 2011 International Women’s Day event was not the first time Afghan women have pointedly asked the president about his wife’s notable absence from his public life.
Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi, now a 2014 presidential candidate, noted dryly in 2009, “when you ask about their own family members, why they cannot be a role model, then... democracy is for our neighbours, not for us.” In March 2011, Humaira Saqib, the editor of a fledgling women’s magazine in Kabul, wrote an open letter to Zeenat Karzai imploring the first lady to come out of her palace and to speak up for women. Saqib described the miseries women continue to face, bluntly pointing out Mrs. Karzai’s distance from the realities of most Afghan women and her failure to be a role model and spokesperson for them. Saqib writes of the women who, like the first lady, want to some day become doctors, but face ongoing barriers to realizing their right to education and work. In the letter, she also tells of the many women actively fighting for these rights, and concludes by inviting Zeenat to join in their struggle.
Zeenat may indeed live under the thumb of a traditionalist Pashtun husband, and one who harbours some sympathies towards the Taliban and has largely failed to live up to the rhetoric on women’s rights he occasionally doles out to the international press and to the Afghan women’s movement. Or, she may just prefer the quiet, comfortable life of the palace, sequestered away from the violence, grinding poverty and ongoing injustices that characterize life for so many of her fellow citizens. In either case, the Karzais are also likely deeply conscientious of the lessons of the past, and of the swift demise of Amanullah Khan and his queen in 1928.
When Queen Soraya appealed to her fellow women to pursue education and contribute to the development of their nation, many women were keenly listening and sensed the dawn of a new era. But at the same time, others who were paying close attention sensed danger and perceived a violent disruption of the status quo. The mullahs and political opponents to the reigning monarchs sought to put a stop to the impending social changes being instigated from the royal palace, to Amanullah’s calls for an end to polygamy and to the grating sight of the nation’s queen removing her veil in public, and prompting other women to do the same. One photo in particular, showing the queen having her hand kissed by a foreign diplomat proved to be the final blow, enraging conservative clergy and tribal leaders at the profanity of their national’s leader’s wife not only appearing sans veil and in short sleeves, but being touched by strange, unrelated men. It was all too much, the story goes, and the couple was forced to abdicate upon their return from a European tour, facing the prospect of civil unrest mounting into civil war. They went into exile and the brave Queen Soraya passed away in Rome in 1968, many thousands of miles away from her beloved Afghanistan.
The story is summoned constantly as a warning to not go too far or too fast in pushing reforms or furthering women’s rights. It’s a refrain that rises up repeatedly, nearly a century later, in the face of frustrated women who are impatient for change. Take it easy, they are told, remember Queen Soraya.
But rather than a warning to women, perhaps Queen’s Soraya should be used instead as a reminder that Afghan women have been waiting their turn for a very, very long time. Perhaps the story is more useful as evidence that in over 80 years, the strategy of waiting for close-minded men to become enlightened has not yielded great dividends for women. The specter of the mullahs waiting in the shadows to pounce every time women try to step further out of their traditional roles is getting awfully old by now.
Gender reform advocates know well that ‘seeing is believing.’ For men to buy into the idea that women having greater rights will not destroy society, they need to witness change before their eyes, and to see that life goes on, and indeed, gets better for everyone, when women are no longer subjugated. That change has to start somewhere, and it usually starts with the socially deviant individual who takes a risk to stand up and speak out, absorbing the risks that go along with such an action. There are many Afghan women who have found the courage to take that risk. Why can’t Zeenat Karzai also be one of them?
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.