KABUL, Afghanistan — For more than a decade, Afghanistan first lady Zeenat Karzai was virtually invisible. Sequestered deep inside the high-walled presidential palace, she appeared to have abandoned her career in medicine and was only rarely allowed out in public by President Hamid Karzai.
"People don't hear from me very much," Zeenat Karzai acknowledged in a rare interview in 2004.
The new president, Ashraf Ghani, is moving quickly in the opposite direction. During his inauguration speech on Sept. 29, Ghani's voice cracked with emotion as he paid loving tribute to his Lebanese-born "life partner and beloved wife."
Rula Ghani, who sat in the second row amid a sea of men, wearing dark glasses, nodded back. A murmur ran through the crowd.
It was a brief but symbolically loaded moment. Many Afghan men are reluctant to talk about their wives with other men in private, let alone before a crowd.
Not only did the president introduce the first lady publicly, but he also announced that she would have a public role in advocating for women, children and the internally displaced.
Among the mostly urban Afghans who have supported the widening freedoms for women of the past decade, it was an occasion to be celebrated.
"Not only did he say her name, he said it with pride," said Hasina Safi of the Afghan Women's Network. "This is really a big deal in this country."
Shafic Gawhari, the chief executive of a major media company, said on Twitter that it was "one of the best parts of his speech."
Just as predictably, though, religious conservatives fulminated against Rula Ghani, a Christian who met her husband at university in Beirut in the 1970s and moved with him to the United States.
"Nobody has seen her convert to Islam," Maulavi Habibullah Hasham of the Bagh Bala mosque in Kabul said in an interview. "I believe her mission is to convert people to Christianity."
The cleric's comments echoed slurs employed by Ashraf Ghani's rivals during the election and pointed to a reactionary streak in Afghan society that goes back many decades.
In the 1920s, King Amanullah, a modernizing monarch, brought his Western-attired wife, Queen Soraya, into the public eye — only to be forced into exile in 1927 by mullahs who used her reputation to attack the king and diminish his authority.
Hamid Karzai used that precedent to excuse his wife's low profile — even if it ignored the radical transformation of Afghan society since that time.
"Get real," said Nasrine Gross, a women's rights activist who took on Karzai on the subject in 2009. "That was three generations ago, and not even 1 percent of society was literate."
Rula Ghani is highly educated, having studied in Paris, Beirut and New York, where she graduated from Columbia University.
Visitors to the couple's house in the Darulaman area of Kabul are shown into an elegant reception hall, with a mixture of Middle Eastern and Nuristani architectural elements, that Ashraf Ghani is proud of pointing out was designed by his wife.
Friends say that Rula Ghani, who is more composed than her husband, offered vital support during the bitter electoral dispute.
Still, some are uncomfortable with a non-Afghan having such prominence.
"A foreigner cannot feel the Afghan pain," said Hamida Asazai, a microfinance officer whose family fled to Kabul from fighting in Wardak province. "It's very difficult for her to understand what we have been through in recent years. And she is not a Muslim, which worries us."
Rula Ghani, for her part, has skirted the question of her religion; in one recent interview, she suggested that it did not matter.
"My religion is not a factor," she said. "God created and decided for me to be born in a Christian family. It's not every day that a Lebanese marries an Afghan. I think God's hand is also in there."
Now that the heat of the election has dissipated, many Afghans are focusing their public expressions of worry on whether Ashraf Ghani can succeed in tackling his main agenda: invigorating a battered economy, quelling Taliban violence and keeping a national unity government intact.