Imagine being a well-behaved young foreign woman far from her family in Paris in May '68. Imagine being any young woman at Sciences Po in the late 1960s, where the 25 percent of female students had to struggle to achieve more than the graduate destination expected of them: marriage. That was Rula Ghani 47 years ago. Today, she is the first First Lady of Afghanistan to have a public profile; an example and source of hope for Afghan women. “I learned to adapt”, she modestly comments. We looked back on the student years of this exceptional alumna, who gave a guest lecture at Sciences Po on Friday, October 13.
In 1966, the young Rolla Saadé—Ghani's maiden name—was enrolled in the Preparatory Year* at Sciences Po. She arrived in Paris with the “demographic wave” of the 1960s that brought the number of students at Sciences Po to 4,000. A Lebanese national, Saadé was one of about 700 foreigners at the institution, or around 20 percent of the student body—far from the 50 percent of 2017.
The marks and comments in young Saadé's student record substantiate the reputation of the notorious Preparatory Year. It was so demanding that the 50 percent of each cohort who were not eliminated in the final exam considered themselves the only “true Sciences Po” students. “Attentive, hardworking, still lacks method and maturity” wrote her history and geography lecturer. Though a very average student in first year, she distinguished herself in English with a “level clearly superior to the students of the group”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Afghan first lady now speaks five languages.
“A model student, if such a category existed”
The difficult Preparatory Year was nonetheless the best possible training for the rest of the Sciences Po programme. Having scraped through the final exam, the young Rolla Saadé became a very good student in the International Relations section. Her choice of courses included “Developing Countries”, “The Great Powers” and “The Middle East”. One lecturer noticed her “intelligence and a sometimes naive freshness” and appreciated “her personal and original views.” In international relations, her lecturer noted her “highly inquiring mind and sound judgment”. “A model student, if such a category existed” her English lecturer enthused.
A model of emancipation
She graduated from Sciences Po in 1969 and began studying at the American University of Beirut, “lastingly inspired” by the revolutionary effervescence of 1968. There she earned a Master of Political Science and met her husband, Ashraf Ghani, who in 2014 was elected president of Afghanistan. By his side, calm and determined, she is now leading her own revolution: inventing an important role for the first lady that had no precedent in the country. While the president’s wife formerly remained in the shadows, the Rula Ghani-style first lady is a public figure with a staff to support her and meeting rooms where she receives streams of people from throughout the country. Ghani is “a model of emancipation” for all Afghan women, one of those “free spirits” that would have made Sciences Po founder Emile Boutmy proud.
On 13 october 2017, Rula Ghani spoke at Sciences Po
Watch the lecture on our livestream channel
* The preparatory year at Sciences Po was discontinued in 1999