Women’s rights in Afghanistan

Obama has taken little action on human rights in the war-torn country.

Pandering for votes seems to be an inevitable part of politics. However, Hamid Karzai , the current president of Afghanistan up for reelection this coming fall, has crossed the line from political ingenuity to violating human rights. Last month, Karzai signed a ShiâÄôite Personal Status Law , which the United Nations Development Fund for Women has interpreted as legalizing marital rape. Moreover, the law âÄî which has yet to be publicly released âÄî includes a provision that requires a woman to gain permission from her husband to work outside the home or to go to school. Thus, this law, approved by Karzai and both houses of Parliament, significantly endangers the gains Afghan women have made since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. The law applies to ShiâÄôa Muslims âÄî the valuable swing vote minority block that make up an estimated 20 percent of AfghanistanâÄôs 30 million people. Critics say that in signing the law devised by ShiâÄôite clerics, Karzai hopes to gain support from the powerful ShiâÄôa ulema who will prompt voter support from the ethnic Hazaras âÄî the ShiâÄôa Muslim minority that generally disapproves of Karzai. Fundamentally, though, Karzai has failed to recognize the potential expansion of this law and the long-term consequences for AfghanistanâÄôs greater political stability. Though the legislation technically applies to ShiâÄôite women only, it is not unlikely that a similar law could arise to apply to Sunni Muslim women as well. Furthermore, Afghanistan is notoriously unstable and has been fighting an ongoing battle against Islamist extremists. With Taliban insurgents gaining ground in rural Pakistan along the Afghan border, Karzai cannot afford to push Afghanistan toward this slippery slope for mere political gain. Yet the core controversy seems to be more about interpreting the law than the reasons for its passing. In defense of the law, the ShiâÄôite cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Asef Mohseni, who spearheaded the legislation, insists it does not sanction marital rape, but only permits men to deny food to their wives if they refuse sex. Yet, Article 132 requires a woman to âÄúobey her husbandâÄôs sexual demands,âÄù neglecting consent all together. Thus in effect, women are legally required to sexually please their husbands. Though theoretically Afghan women could refuse sex and support themselves, the employment and education restrictions the law includes largely prevents economic self-sufficiency from being a reality, particularly in rural Afghanistan where many ShiâÄôa live. Furthermore, an additional provision makes it illegal for women to refuse to âÄúmake herself upâÄù or âÄúdress upâÄù at her husbandâÄôs request. This dehumanizing stipulation seeks to create a conception of women as conveyors of sexuality, but not sexual beings themselves. In blatantly defining men and womenâÄôs roles as providers of food and sex respectively, the law reinforces the notion of women as asexual beings âÄî a false manifestation that contributes to womenâÄôs oppression worldwide. Additionally, Article 132 states that a man has the right to have sex with his wife âÄúat least once every four nights.âÄù If Islam regards women as the chief conveyors of honor and purity âÄî having equated impurity with sexuality âÄî mandating sex and specifying how frequently and in what ways couples should have sex is a blatant contradiction to the Quran from which Islamic law is derived. Therefore, it is not Islam that oppresses women, but rather, particular aspects of Islamic law that have been falsely cited as justified in the name of God. The ShiâÄôa school of thought âÄî from which this legislation stems âÄî is reinforced by a hierarchical clergy system that the majority orthodox Sunni sect rejects. This strict, clerical structure gives supreme authority to ShiâÄôa Imams and clerics whose legitimacy permits them to develop laws, deem them âÄúIslamicâÄù and implement them with little opposition. Mohseni is representative of this exclusive class of ShiâÄôa scholars. The Personal Status Law is not a reflection of Islam, but of the ShiâÄôa clergy. In addition to infringing on womenâÄôs rights, supporters of the law have violated Afghan womenâÄôs constitutional right to demonstration. Women protesting the ShiâÄôa Law in Kabul this month were spat on and stoned by men shouting, âÄúGet out of here, you whores!âÄù So apparently chastity is equivalent to promiscuity? Seems like a bizarre conclusion to me, but Mohseni disagrees. Paradoxically, the 2004 constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women, yet defers to Islamic law in areas that donâÄôt have specific provisions. Moreover, despite the equality, liberty and human dignity clauses the constitution includes, the constitution also states that no law can contradict Islamic law. Though Karzai denies that this law marks a return toward Taliban-style rule, the international community largely disagrees. In response to significant criticism, Karzai called for the Ministry of Justice to review the provisions of chief concern, but has yet to make a strong statement suggesting that he will repeal the legislation. Therefore, it is imperative that President Barack Obama send a powerful message to Karzai, who is in great need of U.S. support in the upcoming election. The Personal Status Law is not only contradictory to the Afghan constitution, but opposes some of the main goals stated in the U.S. mission to Afghanistan âÄî to pursue human rights and help liberate women from religious oppression. Yet what kind of action Obama should take remains unclear. At this point, he has only casually approached this issue, publicly referring to the law as âÄúabhorrent,âÄù but has yet to take a stronger stance. Moreover, the law comes at a time when Obama is seeking NATO support to plan for more resources in AfghanâÄôs war against terrorism. Exerting influence in AfghanistanâÄôs personal affairs could be perceived as presumptuous and could even worsen the situation for Afghan women if not done correctly. However, tricky diplomatic waters are no excuse for silence. Obama must send a clear message to both Karzai and the Afghan people that the United States has not given up on democracy and human rights in Afghanistan. It is in the interest of U.S. national security that we stand by the courageous Afghan women who have risked their lives fighting for their personal and national dignity. This column, accessed via UWire, was originally published in the Cornell Daily Sun at Cornell University. Please send comments to [email protected]