A new law passed by the Afghan parliament that reportedly legalizes marital rape, among other measures, is just an attempt by President Hamid Karzai to win the favour of extremists, say critics.
Journalist and women’s-rights activist Sally Armstrong, who has reported extensively on the state of women in Afghanistan, says the law is simply an attempt by Karzai to win the critical swing votes of conservative Shia men ahead of presidential elections.
“It’s a cheap piece of electioneering on the backs of the women and girls of the country, just so he can hang on to power,” Armstrong told Canada AM. “This is a man who has spoken about the rights of women… but he sold them out to get the extremist men vote.”
Armstrong points out that even though only a small percentage of Shia men would welcome the law, all women would be affected.
“They’re selling this as just for Shia women, but that’s nonsense. The content of Shia law is, it will affect every woman in the country,” she said.
The new law, already signed by the president, is meant to legalize minority Shi’ite family law, which is different than that for the majority Sunni population.
Details about the law, called the Shi’ite Personal Status Law, are few. The text has not yet been published in the official gazette. Karzai and members of his office have yet to comment, and the only details about it are coming from the Afghan parliamentarians who oppose it.
Confusion over the legislation is so widespread that even Afghan diplomats were caught off-guard by the news. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad, said he’s unclear on its basic details and is seeking information from Kabul.
Initial reports say the law would legalize sex without consent within marriage and prohibit women from leaving the home without the permission of their husbands. But lawmaker Sayed Hussain Alem Balkhi, who was involved in debating the bill in parliament, told Reuters it contained “no such thing” and that the reports were “propaganda.”
Nevertheless, the international community has reacted with horror and outrage over the law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the law represented a step backwards for Afghanistan’s women and a “clear indication that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, not better.”
“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,” the South African former war crimes judge said in a statement by her office issued in Geneva.
‘Similar to what Taliban were doing’
Alia Hogben of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women said the law would have devastating effects for women.
“It’s going to be similar to what the Taliban were doing. It will intimidate women from working, going to school or seeking divorce. The law takes the rights of women within their family away,” she told Canada AM.
Armstrong said a Canadian NGO is already working on a $5-million, government-funded project to reform Afghan family laws. The process involves Afghanistan’s ministry of women’s affairs, female politicians, Afghan scholars, and human-rights organizations. Public consultations are set to start this spring.
“I’ve been there to talk to the women who are doing the reform and it’s going very well. And this is how Karzai responds?” she said.
Hogben believes that the international community must voice its stern opposition to the law.
“We shouldn’t see it as the west imposing its values. That’s not what this is about,” she said. “These are universal rights which should be applicable to any woman wherever she lives.”
Armstrong says if the initial international reaction is any indication, the law will likely collapse.
“The good side of this is the huge outrage around the world. When the Taliban did this everyone looked the other way and everyone knows that silence is akin to consent. This time, people are jumping all over it.”