The West, the Taliban, as well as local tribal structures are all complicit in the denial of equality and dignity to Afghan women and the promotion of a culture of war and violence that permeates both public and family life
On March 31, 2008, the Guardian reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had signed the Shia Personal Status Bill that made marital rape lawful under Afghan law.
While the final text of the legislation has not yet been released, reports allege that Article 132 of the Bill makes lawful the rape of a wife by her husband. Article 133 of the Bill subjects a woman’s right to work, education, healthcare and other services contingent upon her husband’s permission. Other articles in the Bill deny a woman the right to leave her home without her husband’s permission and tacitly accept child marriages by laying out “mahr” or dower provisions for marriages between children.
The publication of the Guardian report, entitled “Worse than the Taliban”, caused an immediate outcry as nearly every major Western media outlet picked up the story. Leaders gathered in London for the G20 summit were reported to have taken note of the issue, and reports also emerged of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having raised it with President Karzai.
While the rapt concern for Afghan women and the readiness of the Western media to critique the frame that has so far painted the Taliban as the only culprit in the Afghan crisis is to be lauded, it is difficult to digest this outcry without some valid scepticism.
One glaring source of doubt comes from the ease with which the demonisation of President Karzai falls into the latest recipe for rescuing Afghanistan presented by the Obama administration. If the liberation of Afghan women from the Taliban fell easily into the lap of the Bush administration as a convenient argument for the invasion of Afghanistan, it seems Karzai’s implementation of a misogynistic law will just as easily work some political magic for Obama’s plan in Afghanistan.
The purpose of my scepticism is not to justify a misogynistic and unjust piece of legislation, but simply to draw attention to the complex line-up of culprits that have colluded in the subjugation, disenfranchisement and marginalisation of Afghan women.
In this case, Hamid Karzai ratified a law that prioritises group rights, those of the Shia Hazara, over the rights of Afghan women who will now be legally (as well as culturally and socially) construed as belonging to their husbands or male guardians. While Karzai may be the temporary face of this strategy, the modus operandi of empowering local or tribal groups by giving them some form of sovereignty over their members in exchange for fighting against the Taliban is a strategy coined by the US and NATO as a cheap way to achieve their strategic goals.
In other words, the recipe being implemented here by the Afghan president is but one iteration of a larger scheme put in place by Western forces after its much-celebrated success in Iraq, where it was supposedly responsible for quelling a rabid insurgency.
In the murky moral landscape of war which routinely prioritises strategic aims over human rights, and more specifically women’s’ rights, it is daunting indeed to resuscitate a voice for those most brutally silenced. According to UN reports, nearly 92 percent of female Afghan victims of violence are beaten and raped by their husbands, fathers or brothers. More than half are married before the age of 16 and a woman dies every 29 minutes in childbirth. Three decades of war have left behind over a million war widows who have no means of supporting themselves. Only 15 percent of Afghan women are literate and nearly 87 percent believe that they need their husband’s permission to vote.
I cite these statistics to draw attention to the reality that if there is any meagre degree of sincerity in the global commitment to Afghan women, it will take far more than outrage over a law to correct it. This point is especially pertinent because the new US strategy for Afghanistan, with its incipient turn in rhetoric from nation building to security, is going precisely in the other direction.
Simply put, the decades of war that have all but eviscerated the Afghan state make it nearly impossible to implement any of the changes required to truly empower Afghan women. Outrage over a law is both valid and needed, but it must also recognise that the law itself is a symptom of problems created as a result of decades of war and external meddling. If the lives of women in Afghanistan are to change, then Afghan society must change, and it cannot do so while it remains occupied and stricken by poverty.
If there is any substance to the outcry over the passage of this law that so blatantly construes women as the property of men, then commitment must come in the form of resources committed to the rebuilding of the Afghan state by the Afghan people. While distressing, the law in its current state is a reflection of the social and cultural reality of a society where the ravages of war have permeated a regressive and repressive system and where short term strategic aims of winning have consistently strengthened conservative elements in society.
The West, the Taliban, as well as local tribal structures are thus all complicit in the denial of equality and dignity to Afghan women and the promotion of a culture of war and violence that permeates both public and family life.
To truly change the conditions of Afghan women, the Afghan state must be empowered to enforce current standards of gender equality enshrined in the Afghan Constitution. Unless the literacy rate of Afghan women is increased, a functioning state created and actual capacity to enforce principles of gender equality implemented, outcry over one law is essentially meaningless.
The new American strategy for Afghanistan is eerily silent on any of these goals and is focused instead on the dismantling, destruction and destabilisation of terrorist networks. The detritus of weak institutions, war-ravaged families and abused women this leaves behind in Afghanistan is reflected in this law, which shows once again how the women of Afghanistan are paying for the world’s mistakes.
Rafia Zakariais an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at
Tom Coghlan, reporting for The Times in Kabul, has been leaked the full text of new laws in Afghanistan, under which a woman from the minority Shia community will not be able to leave the house without her husband's permission and cannot refuse him his marital rights. 'The wife is bound to preen for her husband, as and when he desires,' the law says. Catherine Philp reported on the oppression women face in Afghanistan back in 2004 and it seems to be getting worse, not better. A few days ago, Human Rights Watch called on President Obama to make protecting human rights a priority in his revised policy towards Afghanistan. Any US pressure on this doesn't seem to be working. According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, the new law legalises the rape of a woman by her husband.
See also Jeremy Page's report on what is happening with Sharia in Swat in northern Pakistan, where the government reached a truce with the Taleban in February. The video with the report shows a young girl crying in agony as she is beaten. She was accused of adultery but sources suggest her crime was to refuse to marry the military commander.
This is a breakdown of the law passed by parliament earlier this week and applicable to all Shias in the country, Tom Coghlan reports. The laws are clearly framed by the Karzai government with a view to appealing to Islamists in the shia community as part of his re-election bid. The Hazaras are the biggest bloc of potential swing voters but have been looking set to vote with Karzai since they have got more out of the post 2001 settlement than anyone else.
Article 47 (1) Guardianship of children is granted to father and paternal grandfather, both of which are of the same value, and do not cancel the effect of each other. In case of non agreement on the affair of guardianship by father and grandfather, the guardianship by grand father holds prime importance. (2) Father and grand father, in the absence of each other, can authorize someone to be the guardian of the child, but in case of one of them being alive, other guardian can not be chosen. (The amendment brought by Lower House of the Parliament affected the question of WHEN the guardianship could be shifted from mother to father (9 for girls and 7 for boys), but it didnt affect the issue itself. )
Article 122 (1) When a minor is wed by his father, Mahar (dowery) is the responsibility of the minor. (This implies that a minor could be wed. The amendment that sets the age of marriage, 16 for girls and 18 for boys, as also given in the Afghan Civil Law, contradicts this article. If a minor is not to be wed at all, then there is no need for this article). (2) In case the father pays the dowery, and if the minor boy, when matured, divorces his wife prior to intercourse, then the bride can ask for 50% of the dowery to be given to her.
Article 132 (3) The couple should not commit acts that creat hatred and bitterness in their relationship, The wife is bound to preen for her husband, as and when he desires. (4) The husband, except when travelling or ill, is bound to have intercourse with his wife every night in four nights. The wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband. (women have no sexual freedom in Afghanistan traditionally and from the Islamic point of view. this needs to be checked with an authority on Islam and Quran, but for as much as I know, it is implemented in society on Islamic basis) (7) The wife is bound to perform household works only if it was put down as a condition in the marriage document, otherwise, wife is not bound to performing household chores.
Article 133 (1) Husband is responsible for the family maintenance (financially), unless this right is given to the wife due to husband's mental disorder or a decision of the court. (2)If the wife was a working woman before marriage, and the marriage document does not condition her to stop working, the husband cannot stop her from work, unless her work affects the interest of the family or the position of either wife or husband in a negative way. (3) Husband can stop the wife from any unnecessary, unIslamic act. (and who defines unnecessary and unIslamic?) (4) Wife cannot leave the house without the permission of the husband, unless due to any serious pressure or difficulty and to address that. (this paragraph basically stops women from leaving the house without their husbands' permission, the part after the "unless..." is not helpful as again the question comes as to who defines serious pressure and difficulty.)
Article 166 Divorce should be given in the presence of two fair/ just men. If later found that both or one of those men were not fair/ just, the divorce is cancelled. (being fair means having performed Shariat duties, abstaining from the wrong and having fear of God).
Article 177 (1) The husband is bound to provide maintenance to his wife. (2) The wife does not have the right to the provision of maintenance by the husband unless she agrees to have intercourse with him and he gets an opportunity for doing so. (4) Obediance, readiness for intercourse and not leaving the house without the permission of the husband are the duties of the wife, violation of every one of them will mean disobediance to the husband. (further emphasis on paragraph 4 of Article 133)
Article 226 (7) Husband inherits both moveable and immovable property from a deceases wife, but wife can inherit only moveable property. She will also inherit from the construction/ buildings built on the land owned by the husband, the trees or other immoveable property. Husband's family can pay the price of the inherited property to the wife. She also inherits from the water of the wells and canals.
Article 27 for instance sets the age of maturity to be 15 for boys; for girls it is when they have their first period, which could be at an early age of 9 or 10.
The Afghan Constitution says that no law in Afghanistan can be against Islam/ Sharia. When it comes to using Sharia as basis for legislation, the interpretation of Sharia/ Islam and Koran is used, which could be different in different places. Most of the discriminatory laws have their roots in interpretations of Islam and the Koran. Shia Family Law, with or without the amendments, is discriminatory towards women.
In male-dominated Afghanistan, women are treated like chattel. What's changed since the Taleban?
By Åsne Seierstad
Let's take a walk,” I suggested to Aziza. Kabul was in full bloom. The sun's rays had burnt the barren earth, but didn't reach us in the basement apartment in a grey, dilapidated neighbourhood in the outskirts of the city. My back was aching after weeks hunched on the floor listening to women talk of life behind four walls.
“A walk?” She looked at me in bewilderment. “A walk to where?”
“Just around here,” I tried.
Impossible. A walk without a purpose was a forbidden walk. She would just never get permission. The only reasons to leave the house were to run important errands or visit relatives.
Aziza belonged to a well-off and relatively liberal family. Yet the male head of the family would decide her whereabouts as he did with all the female members of his family.
Years have passed since our talk. Western politicians focus on improving conditions for women and children - and the conservative Afghan culture keeps hitting back. Schools are built to educate girls - and then torched to the ground. Aid programmes aimed at helping women are set up - and Afghan female activists are murdered and silenced. A constitution that proclaims equal rights for men and women is approved - and is then broken daily by the judgments of local shuras and jirgas, traditional assemblies of elders.
Aziza couldn't leave the house without permission, and she still can't. Now this “imprisonment” might just be a rule of custom, but it risks becoming part of the formal law of Afghanistan. A new, frighteningly strict family law that will apply to the Shia Hazara minority has been passed in parliament. A woman will, by law, not be permitted to leave the house without the permission of her husband and obedience to the man will be put into statute. The laws state that “the wife is bound to preen for her husband, as and when he desires” and that a man “has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night”.
So what will this law change? Not very much, simply because Afghanistan is not governed by the rule of law, but by that of men - fathers, uncles and husbands. Only one fifth of all cases are tried in formal courts, while 80 per cent are tested in jirgas and shuras where the “judges” often have no formal training. Instead the male elders who pass judgment base it on their personal opinions.
These judgments often violate Afghan state law and universal human rights. A defendant might get his house burnt down as punishment. Or he might have to pay his accuser, at times with money, at times with women. A girl from the family of the defendant can be given to the accuser's family to settle the dispute. Sales of girls can settle opium debts and the gang rape of young girls in full view of their families can be used as punishment outside the law.
Domestic violence has not been curbed. More than half of the marriages are with girls under 16 - and, according to a UN survey, this happens regularly with girls even down to six years of age. If a girl runs away from a violent husband, she is the one who is punished. Women's prisons are filled with those whose only crime was to flee from their husbands or because they have been accused of adultery.
It is not only a rule of men; it is also a rule of money. A judge's salary is about £40 a month and judges are either bribed, or threatened, to pass their judgments. Needless to say, the elder husband is more likely to receive the money than the runaway girl.
If people believed that the suppression of women disappeared with the Taleban, they will have to think again. The new rulers of President Karzai's Afghanistan are in many respects just as conservative as their predecessors. Attitudes do not change overnight, and the attitudes towards women are deep-rooted.
So what has been achieved since the fall of the Taleban in 2001? Have the thousands of troops sent by the international community - followed by many thousands more - been able to protect the most vulnerable?
Some women, those with education or jobs, are better off; but many others are worse off since the security situation has been worsening. Few studies on the conditions of women have been conducted in the vast southern part of the country, so little is known of the state of women in the former strongholds of the Taleban.
My friend Aziza's life continued. She was forced into marriage. The rules imposed by her father were exchanged for the rules imposed by her husband, and every year a new child arrived.
“Too early, too soon, too tired,” she tells me on the phone about the yearly pregnancies. Now, if she says “no” it might even be against the law. And leaving her new husband's house? Never without permission. The long path to women's liberation in Afghanistan is definitely no walk in the park.
Åsne Seierstad is author of Her latest book is The Angel of Grozny
Canada expresses outrage, Western diplomats hold emergency meeting in Kabul, but Karzai's move foreshadows painful tradeoffs
By CAMPBELL CLARK OTTAWA It used to be a mission to give a future to little girls. Now the government is scrambling to explain why Canadian troops are fighting for an Afghanistan that legalizes rape within marriage.
The new Afghan law, apparently approved by President Hamid Karzai, led Western diplomats in Kabul to call an emergency meeting and hammer out a concerted response, pressuring the Karzai administration to back down.
Canadian officials insisted that Mr. Karzai still has some "wiggle room" before the law is implemented, and waited impatiently for the President's first public comments on the law.
The Conservative government expressed outrage, and opposition politicians said Canadian soldiers did not fight and die for an Afghanistan that would pass such a law.
But the thorny question of whether Canada might withdraw support - cut some of its aid, for instance - left cabinet ministers at a loss.
"We haven't had a chance yet to talk with the other ministers, so we haven't made any decisions or had any discussions on next steps," International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said. "It's very problematic. It's a great concern and it is going to be a difficulty for Canada."
As the United States, Canada and allies moved to lower expectations about whether they will leave Afghanistan a democracy that respects human rights - and as they increasingly back reconciliation with elements of the Taliban insurgency - the outcry over the new law may foreshadow painful tradeoffs to come.
For the Conservative government, which has emphasized advances for women and the ability of girls to go to school in Afghanistan, the law presents an immediate political quandary. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said the government must make it clear to Mr. Karzai that the law is unacceptable, while the NDP said Afghanistan should not expect Canadian troops and aid if it passes such laws.
"How can the government say our soldiers have died to protect the rights of women when Hamid Karzai passes this law?" NDP Leader Jack Layton asked in the Commons.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in an interview with the CBC from the G20 summit in London, called the move "antithetical" to Canada's mission in Afghanistan.
"The concept that women are full human beings with human rights is very, very central to the reason the international community is engaged in this country..." he said. "It's a significant change we want to see from the bad, old days of the Taliban."
Canadian government officials said yesterday they still aren't certain if the law had been fully passed or signed by Mr. Karzai. But Alexandra Gilbert, a women's-rights project co-ordinator for the Canadian agency Rights and Democracy, said from Kabul she understands through women MPs that the law has been passed and signed.
It is a new family-law code for Afghanistan's Shia minority, and while it does not apply to all, women's groups in Afghanistan fear the precedent, Ms. Gilbert said.
"Women don't have access to public life. To education, to health care, they can't leave the house without the approval of their husband ... and [wives] cannot refuse sexual relations," she said.
Many believe Mr. Karzai is backing the law to build support for the presidential election he faces in August. University of Toronto foreign-policy expert Janice Stein said she's hoping it will win votes from Shiites and also resonates with Pashtun Afghan elders in the south.
She and other analysts believe that Western allies are still caught between competing visions of the Afghan mission, even though U.S. President Barack Obama has moved the goals from democratic nation-building to preventing the re-establishment of a staging ground for terrorists.
University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris said the new law is so egregious that Western nations had an easy choice to oppose it, but as they scale back emphasis on democracy and support reconciliation with Taliban elements, other hard choices will come. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~