Former first lady Laura Bush is a grandmother, a former librarian and a fierce fighter for women’s rights. Nearly 10 years since she and her husband, former President George W. Bush, left the White House, Bush remains committed to the mission she began after 9/11: empowering women in Afghanistan. She and Afghan first lady Rula Ghani agreed to sit down with me in a rare interview in the Afghan Embassy in Washington.
After our conversation of nearly an hour, part of which included three young Afghans, the two women traveled to Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to continue their support for Afghanistan and its women. But it was clear their bond extends beyond that shared cause.
Friends since 2015, the two women laughed and chatted warmly, traded ideas about Afghanistan, and finished sentences in unison. Beneath their poised and approachable exteriors, it was also clear that the former and current first ladies share a steely determination to make headway in the fight to improve the lives of Afghan women.
For Bush, the work started 16 years ago this month, when she took over her husband’s weekly radio address – the first solo appearance by a first lady – to call attention to the oppression of women and children under the Taliban in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. All these years later, Bush is still fighting for change.
“After September 11th, when the spotlight turned on Afghanistan, American women were shocked, really, at the plight of the life of women” there, Bush told me. Women couldn’t walk on the street alone and weren’t allowed to be educated.
“And what you see when half of a population is left out, like it was then in Afghanistan, is a failed country,” she said.
Now, Ghani added, “you start seeing women in government organizations, you start seeing them in the private sector … many more girls studying, so women are a little bit everywhere.” There are more women in positions of power than at any other time in history, and more than 2.5 million girls in school, according to the UN.
But “what’s really important,” Ghani said, “is that they’re not just being visible, they’re also starting to speak up.” Since the dark days of 2001, “women have progressed tremendously.”
Bush’s work could be one factor in that progress. After making Afghan women a focus during her White House years, she and former President Bush established the Dallas-based Bush Institute, which includes the Afghan Women’s Project. Mrs. Bush has used the Project to advocate for sustained US support for Afghan women and to spotlight their successes.
She has a fellow fighter in the Lebanese-born Ghani, who holds three university degrees, speaks five languages and is breaking barriers on her own terms.
When President Ashraf Ghani gave his 2014 inaugural speech at the presidential palace, he choked up thanking his wife for her support and announced that she would take on a public role. That a male leader in Afghanistan would thank his spouse – let alone go on to promote her work and appear with her publicly – made news around the world.
“He opened the door for me and I went through that door and this is what I’m doing in return,” Ghani said. “I’m opening the door for all these women.”
But when she returned to Kabul in 2001, Ghani encountered a starkly different Afghanistan than the country she knew in the ’70s.
“It was very disturbing,” she said. “I was used to seeing very strong women. Some of them stayed home, some of them worked outside the home, but they were very respected. And what really annoyed me the most is the lack of respect towards women. It’s as if they had become disposable beings.”
Both Bush and Ghani repeatedly returned to one theme. “You’d be surprised at how strong Afghans are, how strong Afghan women and men are,” Bush said, comparing them to Texans: “Strong, with a big, sort of unforgiving … terrain, country, that builds strong people.”
The former first lady’s first exposure to Afghanistan came in sixth grade. “We each made a country report and my country report was Afghanistan,” she said, as she and Ghani laughed. “I just picked a country that seemed the most remote and interesting country. I never expected to visit Afghanistan or really hear about it again.”
Along the way, she learned that Afghanistan has a rich, long and “fascinating” heritage.
Ghani leaned in. “I think what Mrs. Bush pointed out is that it’s not a country without a history, it’s a country with …” And here the two women seamlessly finished the sentence together: “a very long history.”
Perhaps with that in mind, Bush told Ghani that, “it would be great if Afghanistan could become a tourism place, once its more secure.” For now, it remains the site of the United States’ longest running war.
Their obvious camaraderie can only help the work Bush and Ghani do as honorary co-chairs of the US-Afghan Women’s Council, which works to support “Afghan women and girl’s education, healthcare, economic empowerment and leadership.”
On her own, Bush has made four trips to Afghanistan, helped produce the George W. Bush Institute book, “We are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope,” and helped launch the American University of Afghanistan, which opened its doors in 2006.
Onaba Payab was the first female valedictorian to graduate from that university.
As she and two other young Afghan women joined our conversation, Bush and Ghani greeted them warmly, with Bush calling out, “how are you, darlin’?”
Payab, Manizha Wafeq and Manizha Naderi – a Fulbright scholar, the head of the Afghanistan Women Chamber of Commerce, and the executive director of a non-profit serving women – are three examples of what Afghan women can achieve today. But it’s not just about women helping women. Men are just as important in this fight, the young women said.
“Change is coming”
“In the context of a society like Afghanistan, it’s very important to have the support of a male [family] member,” Wafeq said. “We really need their support in order to move forward and progress, and I’m very happy that that attitudinal change is coming and we have witnessed it.”
Wafeq credits her father with making sure she got an education and supporting her when she got her first job at age 16, surrounded by men. “It was very tough, the harassment,” she said. “My father was the one who kept telling me that, ‘you can do it.’”
Payab, the valedictorian, says the stigma once attached to educating girls “is going away, but the thing is that it takes time.”
There are still huge hurdles, to be sure. About 14,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan, alongside 6,000 foreign troops. Despite efforts by the NATO-led coalition, the Taliban remains a threat. This year it has been steadily gaining territory, fueled by cash earned from opium and heroin production. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that opium trade doubled in 2016 from the year before, to about $3 billion – about 16% of Afghanistan’s GDP.
Women and girls in Afghanistan continue to face persistent discrimination, violence, street harassment, forced and child marriage, severe restrictions on working and studying outside the home, and limited access to justice, the UN says. And according to a Global Rights study, 87% of women in Afghanistan experience physical, sexual or psychological violence during their lifetime, with 62% experiencing multiple forms.
Manizha Naderi came to the US as a refugee when she was young – but as she got older, she wanted to go home and help women deal with those stresses. She now serves as the executive director of Women for Afghan Women, where the majority of women seeking shelter come.
“Afghanistan was reborn in 2002,” Naderi said. But she cautions that, “you can’t build a country in 15 or 16 years. We need a generation, if not more.”
I was so overwhelmed by the strength of these young women – I’ve never been to Afghanistan, but maybe one day, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have a chance to see more examples of this resilience at work.
As we wrapped up, I turned to Mrs. Bush with a question that I just had to ask. “You’ve been listening to all of this and you’ve talked about the resilience of Afghan women,” I said. “Where do you think this resilience comes from?”
“I think it’s just a basic strength that women and men have,” she said. “And fortunately, they’ve been able to use that, now that things have changed in Afghanistan.”
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.