Afghan Women

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Karzai Signs Away Rights for Afghan Women

April 5, 2009
N.J. Lukanovich

A day after Karzai won his extension to the presidency, news broke out that he signed new legislation last month called the Shi'ite Personal Status Law in Afghanistan. The legislation essentially legalizes rape within marriage, forces a woman to ask permission to leave the home, to work, and to go to school (unless the woman was already working or in school and this right was part of the marriage contract), and women can not have custody of children or inherit immovable property from their husbands.

The news hit the press March 31, during the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, while leaders of the Western allies were discussing boosting the mission in Afghanistan. This was more than bad timing for Karzai who spent his time defending the law and trying to diffuse the outrage of NATO leaders: "We understand the concerns of our allies in the international community. Those concerns may be out of an inappropriate or not so good translation of the law or a misinterpretation of this. [...] If there is anything that is of concern to us then we will definitely take action in consultation with our ulema (senior clerics) and send it back to the parliament [...] This is something we are serious about." Karzai seems to forget the female parliamentarians in Afghanistan who opposed the legislation, who doubtless had no problems with translations or misinterpretations.

If Karzai is serious about anything, it's remaining the president of Afghanistan. His support of the law appears to be a political ploy to court Shiite leaders and political parties, whom he needs to win the upcoming election. Member of parliament Fawzia Koofi is one of those pointing a finger at Karzai for abandoning women rights set in the constitution to garner votes: "We have elections coming up in the summer and President Karzai's dependency on these fundamentalist groups is growing - and also he wants to have the support of the extremist Shia groups."

Many Afghan human rights activists have been fighting this legislation, and one can only assume they too, are not having translation difficulties or perceiving the law through "Western eyes." One of those who campaigned against the law is Soraya Sobhrang, commissioner for women's rights at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, who has criticized the previous silence from Western leaders and told the BBC that the law is "disastrous for women's rights in Afghanistan. [...] This law legalises all violence which happens against women in Afghanistan. [...] They will lose their rights we have in our constitution."

A more detailed look at the legislation:

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 grandfather holds prime importance.
(2) Father and grandfather, 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.

Article 132
(3) The couple should not commit acts that create 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.
(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.
(4) Wife cannot leave the house without the permission of the husband, unless due to any serious pressure or difficulty and to address that.

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.

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.

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.

Obligatory sex is reinforced in Article 135: "a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband," and Article 27 defines the age of maturity for girls to be set when they have their first period (which could be as early as 9 or 10) and for boys at 15. Amendments made to the law to calm down the outrage within Afghanistan show that the age of marriage for women was raised to 16 from nine and that a woman would be allowed to leave her home unaccompanied for medical treatment, to go to work or for her education.

What about the Sunni majority? The Taliban are Sunni and and family law legislation for Sunni Muslims is currently in the works. It is hard to believe that the family law for Sunnis will give women more freedoms than the Shiite women.

It might behoove Karzai, as he spouts off about inappropriate reactions, to recognize that the nations spending billions in Afghanistan are democracies led by leaders who need the support of voters who will not tolerate supporting a government that creates legislation which so blatantly flouts standards of international human rights.

John Hutton, British Defence Secretary, told the BBC on Friday that Afghanistan's government "must abide by international agreements that it has entered into willingly." In a statement issued on Thursday by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay requested the law be rescinded, and wrote "for a new law in 2009 to target women in this way is extraordinary, reprehensible and reminiscent of the decrees made by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s."

NATO leaders have made their concerns clear, whether or not their statements will be backed by action if Karzai ignores the demands of the NATO leaders and leaves the legislation in place remains to be seen.

Comments by Sayed Hussain Alem Balkhi, an MP who helped push the law through parliament, reveal the mentality of many Afghan lawmakers (some of whom are warlords). He claims the reports are "propaganda" and that the law protects Shiite women by giving them the right to leave their homes "for medical treatment" and "to see her parents without the permission of her husband." Canadians have to ask themselves if we should be risking Canadian lives and participating in a mission in which women and children have become collateral damage while we do nothing to provide security to women who are trying to enjoy the rights they currently have under the constitution. Canada has spent over 10 billion in the war and has been fighting in the most dangerous region of Afghanistan, incurring the highest casualty rate amongst the coalition forces.

The war has neither decimated the Taliban in Afghanistan nor quashed Al Queda, and neither group was confined to Afghanistan in the first place. Pakistan, for example, who is enjoying massive aid from the US, effectively handed over control of the Malakand Division (including the Swat Valley) to the Taliban through a peace deal negotiated in January which included the decimation of women's rights. The strength of religious conservatives in Pakistan and the expansion of areas that are Taliban strongholds are growing exponentially.

At a certain point, when considering Canada's participation in Afghanistan, the question becomes: What's the point? If NATO is going to continue to occupy Afghanistan there needs to be a change not only in military strategy, but in the approach to security for the women the leaders of NATO make such fuss over when the media gets hold of a story.

Women have not gained security since the invasion, they have lost husbands and children or their own lives, and what rights they have are clearly tenuous and enjoyed mainly by women living in Kabul. Women harassed by death threats are given no protection, female journalists and police officers have been assassinated while there have been several incidents of young girls being attacked on their way to school (see Women in Afghanistan - Before and After the Taliban). For the Karzai government to so glibly demolish the rights Shiite women had under the constitution is outrageous. It puts women in the position of lacking both safety from warfare and basic human rights.

NATO allies should unequivocally demand that Karzai rescind this law - if the law remains it will become a thorn that could decimate what support is left for the war amongst Western nations. NATO leaders also need to recognize that if they occupy a nation and give women more freedoms, they have a responsibility to protect women and girls that use those freedoms. Perhaps part of the problem is that women's rights are relatively new even in Western nations when looked at through the eye of history.

In fact, spousal sexual assault only became a crime in Canada in 1983. It wasn't until 1993 that marital rape was considered a human rights violation by the UN Commission for Human Rights. When Stockwell Day, Canadian Minister of International Trade voiced his discontent with the new laws, he stated: "The onus is upon the government of Afghanistan to live up to its human-rights responsibilities, absolutely including the rights of women." Glory be the day when women's rights won't be included with human rights, but will be considered simply: human rights.