Afghanistan was a different world when Rula Ghani moved there from Lebanon as a newlywed in the 1970s. Untouched by war, its small middle class was open to the wider world.
She had met her husband, Ashraf, while studying political science at the American University of Beirut. He was an Afghan Muslim; she, a Lebanese Christian.
They would go on to make a life together — first in Afghanistan, then in America, where she got a degree from Columbia University and became an American citizen, and he taught at Johns Hopkins before moving on to the World Bank.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Ghanis returned to Afghanistan. And last year, Ashraf Ghani was elected president of Afghanistan.
In a country where women don't have much of a presence in officialdom — much less a voice — Rula Ghani is the first to play a prominent role as first lady.
In an interview at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C., with Morning Editionhost Renee Montagne, Ghani discusses the challenges facing Afghanistan, her opinion on the needs of the country's most vulnerable populations and what she would like Americans to know about Afghanistan.
Interview HighlightsOn being a more public and politically active first lady of Afghanistan
It's actually quite exciting to be charting new waters and to try new things. I don't mind the fact that I'm the first to have an office and to try and receive people and listen to them. ...
We really try to address the needs of the population. Of course, I'm especially interested in women, but I'm interested actually in any people that have concerns. I'm interested in vulnerable people, internally displaced people; I'm interested in helping the children that are on the streets; I'm interested in helping people in the far-flung provinces that are already cut off services.
Then-presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani sits next to his wife, Rula, during a campaign rally in Kabul on March 9, 2014. In an unusual move for Afghan politics, Ghani's wife spoke during the rally — a foreshadowing of her role in her husband's presidency.
On her husband's inauguration and his emotional and public thank you to her
It took me by surprise. I knew he was going to mention me, but I thought it would be just in passing. But it certainly moved me, like it moved the whole audience. And it's exactly what I usually say I want to do for other women, is that I want them to become respected. I want here to say that I'm in awe of Afghan women. They're very strong women, they're very resilient. Yes, they're going through very difficult periods and their situation is not a very easy one, but you have some extremely strong, articulate, dedicated women at all levels of society. So I usually cringe when I read in the press about "Oh, these poor Afghan women." This is not the way you should describe them. They are very determined to make the best out of a very difficult situation.
On how important it is to have women in government — and parliament's recent rejection of three women candidates for cabinet ministers
Symbolically, it would be very important, but practically, what would be best? Is it best to have four very weak women or ... one very strong woman? There may have been like 21 ministers that were presented to the parliament, and only nine were accepted. So it's not that the women were singled out, but they happened to have not passed the test of the parliament, and maybe you need to ask the parliament why.
On her effort to provide humanitarian aid to a remote Afghan region — and the need to do more
Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images Afghan first lady Rula Ghani, also known as Bibi Gul, speaks during an event for empowering Afghan women at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Nov. 8, 2014.
For that I have to wait for my husband. And then I encourage him.
On the great challenge facing Afghanistan now
It's huge and it's getting huger, the more you ... dole out some humanitarian assistance instead of addressing the issue, finding land, building little townships with everything in terms of services, in terms of shops and mosques, community center, and in terms of attracting factories so that there would be jobs for the people to make a living. So it's huge, it's much huger than what my little office can do.
On being a Lebanese Maronite Christian in Muslim Afghanistan