Zinat Karzai, Afghanistan's 'invisible' first lady

Zinat Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul Zinat Karzai is qualified as a doctor and worked for years in Pakistan before her marriage

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She has been called Afghanistan's invisible first lady. Zinat Karzai, the 43-year-old wife of Hamid Karzai, is rarely seen in public, prompting criticism that she is not doing enough to further the cause of women's rights in her country. This week she gave a rare interview to the BBC's Maryam Ghamgusar and Freba Zaher.

"Thank you and welcome," says a smiling Zinat Karzai greeting the BBC team in her modest, light-filled sitting room. "I'm very pleased to have you here."

Afghanistan's first lady lives behind a formidable barrage of security in the presidential palace in central Kabul.

It took five security checks, each more rigorous than the one before, to reach the ground-floor apartments which are currently home to her, her husband and their two young children.

Security constraints

It is clearly a situation which poses big challenges to everyday family life.

The women in Afghanistan's political families

Princess India

BBC Persian TV interviewed three other Afghan women connected to powerful families to understand how they cope with life in the public eye of a conservative nation.

Waheeda Mohaqeq, 37, third wife of the Hazara leader and resistance fighter Mohammad Mohaqeq lives with him, their six children and his two other wives and all "get on very well together".

She has a degree in literature but says, "I'm a housewife and I like living a simple life. I'm happy that I can live just like any normal person, going out, going shopping. This is how I want it to stay."

Fatana Gillani, is the head of the Afghan Women's Council and married to MP Ishaq Gillani.

She is one of the few wives of prominent Afghan politicians who has a career of her own. The couple have been the target of much criticism from conservative Afghans because of her public profile.

Her charity provides support to a network of 500 under-privileged women.

"The oppression that Afghan women are subjected to now is like what was happening in the dark ages before Islam. There is still so much to do," she said.

Princess India (pictured above), 83, is the daughter of former King Amanullah, a moderniser who was deposed in 1929. She grew up in Rome.

Her mother was Queen Soraya, the first Afghan woman not to wear the veil. Her mother's glamorous modern fashion sense was hugely shocking to conservative Afghans at the time, and still would be for many people today today.

"One important thing that needs to happen is that Afghan men need to be educated. I'm sorry to say it, but Afghan men just don't have good manners. They need more education," she says.

"It's very, very difficult… to be constantly under guard all the time," she says. "I would prefer it if I could live outside the palace."

The security constraints are one reason why this intelligent and articulate woman rarely appears in public .

"I have not travelled to anywhere inside Afghanistan," she says. Instead, people come to her.

"I have lots of contact with ordinary Afghan women… involved in areas like politics, social affairs, education and healthcare. They often come to see me and share their thoughts."

Zinat Karzai's lack of visibility has prompted criticism from some Afghans, especially the younger generation, that she is not doing enough to stand up for women's rights and to set a positive example.

All the more so, her critics say, because she is a qualified doctor who before her marriage worked for some years in Pakistan.

"I know [my contribution] is not open and visible in the media," she says firmly. "But I've done what I can and what I know it's possible to do given the current circumstances in Afghanistan."

When she talks about current circumstances, Mrs Karzai is not just talking about security issues.

Her role is clearly also constrained by cultural sensitivities. She says the country is simply not ready for a high-profile first lady appearing at her husband's side.

"I think more time is needed," she says. "This country has suffered from more than 30 years of war. We need to fix everything gradually, and work in line with our culture and traditions."

Those traditions include the belief still held by many conservative Afghan men that it is shameful for their wives to be seen by other men.

In fact, her own husband has been accused of having just such concerns. But she says it is her decision, not his, to keep out of sight.

"He and I both know our country's culture, traditions and the current state of affairs," she says tactfully. "We need to take this into account and to work in accordance with this."

Despite being out of the public eye, Zinat Karzai has met a number of other visiting first ladies.

Start Quote

All of us went through higher education. It was important for our family”

End Quote Zinat Karzai

She numbers Cherie Blair, Laura Bush and Gursharan Kaur, the wife of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, among the first ladies she admires. She is also close to Iranian President Ahmadinejad's wife, Azam al-Sadat Farahi, whom she speaks to on the telephone.

Zinat and Hamid Karzai have been married for 14 years, and since she became first lady she has had two children.

Her son Mirwais is now six, and she has a baby daughter called Malalai.

She says President Karzai dotes on the children, although he struggles to make time in his packed schedule to spend time with them.

"Sometimes, perhaps on Fridays, he might be free for an hour or so," she says, "so he will go for a walk with me and the children. We all go out together - once in a while."

President Karzai has in the past spoken emotionally about the kind of Afghanistan he hopes his son will grow up in.

For many Afghan families, a daughter is seen as less valuable, but Zinat says President Karzai is equally ambitious and hopeful for his daughter.

Fashion conscious

"For us… there is no difference between a boy and a girl," she says. "A daughter is the best gift from God."

Like her husband, Zinat Karzai has a keen eye for clothes and has cultivated what she calls an Afghan style of dress.

For the BBC interview she was wearing a light green long dress and matching head scarf.

President Hamid Karzai inspects a guard of honour after his arrival for the opening session of Parliament in Kabul on 6 March 2013 The president usually attends public occasions unaccompanied by his wife

While for many outsiders the burka is a symbol of the lack of freedom many Afghan women still experience, Mrs Karzai maintains that it is not actually part of Afghan tradition at all.

"The burka… is imported from abroad," she says. "In rural areas the majority of women just wear a big headscarf. This is Afghan dress."

Looking back to her own childhood, Zinat Karzai remembers with affection her father who worked in the education ministry and pushed all his daughters to study.

"My parents… made sure that me and my sisters all got an education and went to university," she says. "All of us went through higher education. It was important for our family."

Although she feels unable to play a greater role in public life, Mrs Karzai says she is keen for both her children to be educated in Afghanistan, and maybe, if they are interested, even to go into politics.

"Their father has done so much for this country," she says. "It would be good if they could also serve their country."

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