Fatima Gailani is used to waiting. After living in exile for 24 years, working for her embattled country out of a suitcase, the 50-year-old Afghan has mastered the virtue of patience by never losing hope. Saturday's presidential election in Afghanistan is an important milestone along that journey, she explained, though she knows steep obstacles remain.
An architect of Afghanistan's new constitution, Gailani was in Washington last week accompanying her husband, Anwar Ahady, the governor of the Central Bank of Afghanistan, to annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund.
Gailani said Afghans were excited about the election, despite the many challenges.
"We believe a half-cooked democracy and a half-cooked election is much better than not having an election, but we are under no illusions," she said Sunday over a mushroom omelet at a restaurant in Georgetown.
"There is nothing wrong with doing things step by step. We have to change things so people learn what an election means and the consequences of putting someone in office, even if some people are not fully aware of who they are supporting."
Gailani is the daughter of Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, 71, a former leader of Islamic guerrillas who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. While her father and other men directed Afghan resistance fighters from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, she served in London from 1982 to 1990 as their spokeswoman for Europe and the United States. She also traveled extensively, carrying messages from her father to King Hussein of Jordan to convey to Saudi and Western leaders. One of the warnings she carried, which went unheeded, she said, was that Arab countries should stop allowing their citizens to join the Afghan resistance, since they would become a liability once the Soviets were driven out.
More important than her political resume is her religious pedigree.
Descended from the prophet Muhammad, Gailani's family lived in Baghdad until her grandfather was invited to settle in Afghanistan. The family still owns land in Iraq, where a shrine was established in memory of Abdel Qader Gailani, who founded the Qadiri order in Baghdad in the 11th century. Today her father is head of the order.
Gailani still cherishes memories of her happy childhood in Kabul. "We could have been easily spoiled. We were worshiped. My parents always told us it was not an entitlement as much as a responsibility. We were told we had to work very hard to deserve it," she said, describing an upbringing that emphasized the importance of education and equality among boys and girls.
When the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 gave way to civil war and the rise of fundamentalism in Afghanistan, Gailani felt she needed a refuge. "I realized that if I did not know as much as an imam on Islam, I could not survive as a female politician," she said.
She entered the Muslim College in London. "Of all my training, this ended up being the most useful," she said. She studied alongside male imams-in-training, and says now that while she can never run a mosque, as they do, she can train other imams.
The depth of her studies of the Koran, Islam's holy book, qualified to her to become one of the relatively few women to participate in Afghanistan's grand council, or loya jirga, and a framer of Afghanistan's constitution.
Gailani's contribution is chronicled in a documentary titled "Peace by Peace: Women on the Frontlines" that will be shown Oct. 19 at a film festival sponsored by Search for Common Ground in cooperation with George Washington University.
When the 35 members of the constitutional commission first came together, Gailani said, "all we knew about one another was totally negative. When we met, we learned how to make a mini-Afghanistan in that room. We spoke different languages, had different backgrounds, but we made this microcosm come together."
Gailani said that, for her, the moment that encapsulated her hopes for Afghanistan occurred when the commission members were hashing out which of the country's two official languages -- Dari or Pashto -- should be used in the national anthem. The Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, but because of bitter resentment toward the largely Pashtun Taliban, "many Pashtuns are scared to speak their own language," Gailani said.
One commission member, Saddiqa Balqi, an ethnic Tajik and Dari-speaker who was the daughter of a famous Persian poet, insisted the anthem's words be in Pashto. " 'We must not alienate Pashtuns altogether,' " Gailani recalled Balqi saying. "But the way she explained it made me cry.
"We all felt we had turned a corner," Gailani said. "Before, we were a people ready to kill one another over language. Her father was jailed and died from that hardship. Her brother was executed by Soviets and Afghan communists when he was a young man. She is a wounded woman. I cried and cried, because I felt we had achieved something."