Women's Rights Are Neither Built Nor Broken On One Law In Afghanistan

Our government is up in arms over the Afghan marital rape law,the Afghan government is promising a review, but the law still has its supporters and Anand Gopal asks what's changed for women there.

But, in case you're not caught up, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was caught trying to push through a law that, among other things, designated how often Shia women were required under law to submit sexually to their husbands. Fits were thrown, reviews were promised and, according to Registan's Joshua Foust, Karzai's government is now swearing it's not going through.

"Definitely not," Ambassador Said Jawad said in an interview on Bloomberg Television's "Political Capital with Al Hunt," scheduled to air today. "This is not the law yet, and it will not become the law, because it contradicts some important principles of the Afghan constitution."

Well, if it contradicts the constitution now, it probably did so before everyone took notice, too. That does not, however, mean that the law doesn't continue to have its supporters.

Of course, Mohammad Asif Mohseni, the law's primary architect, disagrees, and wants us all to butt out of it.
"The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights," Mohseni told reporters in the capital, Kabul…

Mohseni argued that women and men are very far from equal in today's Afghanistan and should not be treated as such. He pointed out that many rural women are illiterate and would not be able to find work if they were asked to provide some of the family's financial support. Men are typically the breadwinners in Afghan households, expected to provide for their wives and children.

"It is not possible for all women to pay the same amount of money as men are paying. For all these expenses, can't we at least give the right to a husband to demand sex from his wife after four nights?" he said.

Yes, since women are prevented from education and working — by the law Mohseni wants, in fact — they should give it up as recompense for their living expenses.

Foust additionally points out that the law, which was sold as a way to protect Shia minority rights in Afghanistan, has become a way to protect the rights of the Shia minority to do what it wants to half its population without interference from the central government — as if there's much of that, as Anand Gopal points out.

What do Afghan women think about this law?

Most Afghan women have never heard of it. This is because the majority of Afghans are rural, living without electricity or a connection to the happenings in Kabul. Afghan women suffer from the lowest literacy rate in the world, at 13 percent. And the ones that are familiar with it mostly shrug their shoulders, because the conditions that the law imposes are no different than those that already exist in their everyday lives. The typical woman from the country's south or east, for example, cannot leave her home without a male guardian. She must wear the burqa in public at all times, and in some villages she must even don one in private. Marital rape is the norm in a society where sex is a man's right, not a woman's.

According to the UK-based NGO Womankind, anywhere between sixty and eighty percent of marriages are forced, 57 percent of brides are under the age of 16, and 87 percent complain of domestic violence. UNIFEM says that 65 percent of widows in Kabul see suicide as their only option to "get rid of their miseries and desolation." Thousands of women turn to self-immolation every year. There are no reliable stats on rape, as most women will never report it. This is because women can be convicted of zina, extramarital sex, if knowledge of the rape becomes public. In most of the country, even a woman just found outside of her home without the permission of her male guardian will be thrown in jail and tried as an adulterer.

And in case you're thinking that women have it better off in a post-Taliban world, he invites you to think again.

How do Afghan women fare now compared to the Taliban era?

The answer, like most things in Afghanistan, depends on where you look and whom you ask. In the central highlands, for example, women of the ethnic minority group the Hazaras are usually allowed to leave the home and sometimes even find work. In Kabul, some females now have access to education, and there are well-paying NGO jobs available for the elite. Only five percent of girls go to secondary school throughout the country, but in Kabul more girls are enrolled than at any point in the last ten years.

In the south and east, life for women is mostly unchanged since the Taliban times: they remain cloistered indoors, in burqas, away from schools, without health care, without independence, and without protection from physical and sexual violence. And in some ways, life is even worse than during the Taliban: these women now live in an active war zone, caught in a crossfire between belligerents.

The Hazaras, by the way, are part of the Shia minority and — as Foust mentioned — this law is actually aimed at the relatively liberal Hazaras, who are already a put-upon minority subject to extra-legal abuse and defamation. In effect, the law is actually intended to minimize the role of women in a minority population that is already suffering. Great.

But back to Gopal, who points out that Western hands are far from clean when it comes to the status of women in particularly rural Afghanistan.

The US and its allies supported the mujahedeen — fundamentalist, misogynist warlords — against the Soviets in the eighties. The mujahedeen transformed an extremely reactionary interpretation of Islam into the national standard, and in many ways were even worse than the Taliban. They burned down schools and libraries, killed women in public positions, enforced the burqa in areas under their control. They raped and killed thousands. After coming to power in the mid-nineties, they established a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. One issued decree mandated that:
Women do not need to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; do not wear perfume; their jewelry must not make any noise; they are not to walk gracefully or with pride and in the middle of the sidewalk; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands' permission to leave home.

When the Taliban arrived in Kabul in 1996, they continued to enforce these mandates, without resorting to the widespread raping and killing that marked the mujahedeen government.

After the Taliban was toppled, the US and rest of the international community supported these same mujahedeen in their return to power. The majority of the Afghan parliament today consists of these warlords. Is it any surprise then that parliament tries to pass anti-women laws?

As I said earlier — it's the guys our government has been supporting that have pushed these laws, and we have no intention of ending our support for them. So the recission of one law, more or less, is a great symbolic gesture, but it doesn't change the reality of life for many women in Afghanistan — and unless we put Hillary Clinton's words about women's rights being fundamental to our national security policy into effect, nothing probably will.

Rape Law? What Rape Law? [Registan]
What You Should Know About Women's Rights in Afghanistan [Huffington Post]

Earlier: U.S.-Backed Afghan Government Passes Pro-Rape Law To Win Election
Afghanistan To Review Its Pro-Rape Law
Hillary Clinton Talked The (Girl) Talk At Senate Confirmation