KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–In the last nine months, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has had his share of the international spotlight. But few people have heard of his spouse, Zeenat Karzai.
For a president who has been credited for helping the women of Afghanistan regain their civil rights, Karzai has also been criticized for being overly conservative with his own spouse. Many have accused Karzai of keeping the first lady out of the media’s reach over fearsof criticism from conservative mullahs and religious leaders.
“We want to see our first lady on television,” said Habiba Siddiq, a 24-year-old journalism student at Kabul University. “We want her to be our role model.”
Dr. Zeenat, as the palace guards call her, is a gynecologist. Born and raised in the southern city of Kandahar, Zeenat moved to Kabul after high school to attend Kabul Univeristy. In 1992, at the beginning of the factional fighting in Kabul, she and her family fled to Quetta, Pakistan.
Zeenat rarely speaks to journalists and has been under tight security since her husband’s rise to power late last year.
“I want to work for my people and my own country. I am a doctor because of this country and I definitely have plans to work,” Zeenat said in a recent interview with Women’s Enews.
Zeenat, 29, returned to Kabul again last spring as the first lady of Afghanistan. Although she has been in the capital for more than five months, she rarely ventures beyond the many layers of palace security. Most Afghans are not even aware that their 44 year-old president is married.
The country’s political instability and ethnic rivalry also have added to Karzai’s desire to safeguard his family. Last Thursday, a gunman nearly succeeded in assassinating the president, and that same day a car bomb exploded in Kandahar, killing 25.
Zeenat’s family has fears of her being kidnapped by people opposed to the transitional government. If kidnapped, Zeenat could be used to pressure Karzai into possibly giving up his presidency or giving into warlord interests.
Many Women Wear Burqa for Safety
Given the current climate in her homeland, Zeena’s intentions to assume a public role may be too ambitious in a country where most women still choose to wear the burqa, a veil that covers a woman from head to toe, including the face. In some parts of Afghanistan the burqa has always been the traditional dress for women when going outside of the home, but under the Taliban it was mandatory for all women. The rule was lifted in December after the fall of the Taliban and the emergence of the interim administration of Afghanistan.
“I would like to shed my burqa–believe me it is not for fashion. But I am afraid of being harassed or even kidnapped,” said Masooda Anwar of Kabul.
Anwar says she is still fearful of leaving her house after dark and gets her grocery shopping done early in the morning. Wearing a headscarf, she and other women say, does not provide enough protection.
“I have heard of women being seen on the street. A soldier or a man in power thinks she is beautiful and steals her off the street,” Anwar said.
In a country where the rule of law is still in shambles, the family of a kidnapped girl or woman has no real means of reporting the incident and having the police investigate.
Threat of Kidnappings Affect All Women, Including First Lady
Many Kabul citizens say kidnappings are not anything new in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance and the Taliban were known for stealing girls off of the streets and ransacking homes for young girls. Although the threat has lessened considerably since the fall of the Taliban, Afghan families–including the president–are not taking any chances.
Karzai’s picture can be seen in dozens of newspapers and magazines every day, but he has made sure that Zeenat is kept out of the public eye.
In the few interviews that Zeenat has given (only to female journalists), she has not allowed any tape recorders or cameras. There are no public pictures of Afghanistan’s first lady and she does not accompany her husband for any public events.
“I want to travel around the world, I have heard great things about Europe but have never been there. Soon I hope to travel with my husband,” Zeenat said.
Zeenat has yet to be seen in Kabul’s streets or at special events. The first lady was not present at the Afghan Independence Day celebration at the Kabul Sports Stadium on Aug. 19.
Some women criticize Zeenat’s invisibility, saying that she should be bold and strong, sacrificing her own fears for the betterment of the country. Karzai has supported Afghan women in words, critics charge, but his actions have said otherwise.
“Karzai’s conservatism is not helpful to the women’s cause in Afghanistan. We need a president who is going to take some risks and show the world this is not the Taliban regime,” said a female Afghan government employee who did not want to be identified.
Some recall the days of King Amunallah Khan, who fought for Afghanistan’s independence from the British in 1919 and has been credited as a champion of women’s rights in Afghanistan. It has been said that Amanullah ordered his cabinet officials to bring their wives to the Independence Day celebration that year. His wife, Queen Soraya, and the other wives shed the burqa and showed up at the celebration in modern, formal attire.
“It was a volatile time then in Afghanistan, we were just ending a war, but the king took a risk, and he led the way. Karzai needs to be more bold,” the government worker said.
Amunallah ultimately gave up the throne for a life in exile after local religious leaders criticized his boldness. Many Afghans believe that Karzai also fears being pushed out by Islamic conservatives.
Critics say, however, that while playing it safe on women’s rights may be a good political strategy for Karzai, it is another crippling setback for the women of Afghanistan.
Halima Kazem is an Afghan American freelance journalist who has worked for MSNBC News, PBS and Times Publishing Company.
For more information:
U.S. Department of State
“Women in Afghanistan–Fact Sheet”:
United Nations WomenWatch: Afghan Women:
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“Women Journalists Honored on Postage Stamps”:
Postal Service Honors Women Reporters
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The four original “Brenda Starrs” who blazed the path for female journalists will be honored in the form of first-class letter stamps that the U.S. Postal Service will unveil Saturday.
Nellie Bly (1864-1922), Marguerite Higgins (1920-1966), Ethel L. Payne (1911-1991), and Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944) will grace the front of the 37-cent stamps, joining the ranks Margaret Mead, Emily Post and Eleanor Roosevelt who have been featured on postage stamps honoring women.
“We received a lot of requests for these stamps,” said Francis Frazier, a public affairs officer for the postmaster general. “We selected this group out of thousands of proposals because we believe that if women and girls learn about these journalists they will realize that they can do anything they dream.”
Bly, Higgins, Payne and Tarbell eschewed the usual “living” and “style” sections of newspapers that women typically covered. Instead they became investigative reporters, war correspondents and artfully wrote about politics and social injustice.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran began her journalism career at the Pittsburgh Dispatch under the pen name Nellie Bly. She also worked for Joseph Pulitzer’s the New York World newspaper, where she conducted undercover research on the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwells Island (now Roosevelt Island) by feigning insanity in order to be admitted. Bly also achieved widespread fame in 1889 as has she raced around the world in fewer than 80 days, beating the record set by Jules Verne’s fictional character in his popular novel, “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
Higgins was an active war correspondent in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Her work advanced the cause of equal access for female war correspondents, whose numbers were few. Higgins won a Pulitzer Prize for her international war reporting. As head of The New York Herald-Tribune’s Tokyo bureau, Higgins was one of the first reporters to hit the front lines of the Korean War. When a U.S. military commander told her that women didn’t belong at the front, she brought her case to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the allied commander in Korea, who reversed the decision.
Payne covered the tumultuous civil rights movement in the Deep South during the 1950s and 1960s, earning her the informal title in the press corps as the “first lady of the black press.” She wrote for the Chicago Defender and worked for CBS radio as a commentator during the Vietnam War.
Tarbell is best known for her articles on the history of the Standard Oil Company, which was ranked in the top five works of 20th century American journalism by the New York University’s Graduate Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. Her investigative reporting into John D. Rockefeller’s activities at the company and in the oil industry helped break up Standard Oil.
Maya Dollarhide is an associate reporter at The Asahi Shimbun.