The Afghan war for sexual reform

Sep 05, 2009 04:30 AM



An Afghan woman prays at a women's shelter in Kabul Aug. 9, 2009. According to a 2006 report by the U.K.-based NGO Womankind, between 60 and 80 per cent of marriages in Afghanistan are forced, 57 per cent of brides are younger than 16, and 87 per cent complain of domestic violence.

In Paktia province last year, a shura of elders decided that a 25-year-old man who sexually abused a 7-year-old relative should pay compensation to the child's family. They also decreed the girl should marry her rapist when she's older.

Case study from Silence Is Violence: End the Abuse of Women in Afghanistan, published by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, July 2009.



What a sneaky little fellow President Hamid Karzai has become.

The modern Afghan messiah: a leader for the 21st century of a nation suspended in the cultural bell jar of medievalism. Showing one face to the international community but, increasingly, and with the instinct of a political survivor, another at home to appease fundamentalists.

His own wife a doctor is never seen in public. That should have been a clue.

In March, Karzai signed off on draconian draft legislation based on sharia law that, among other egregious specifications, obliged Shiite women to have sex with their husbands at least every four days, effectively condoning marital rape by removing the need for consent, and required females to be accompanied by a male family member when stepping outside the home.

Western countries including those that have sent troops to boost Karzai's government were incensed. The president, in statements that rang false, professed ignorance of what he'd signed and the legislation went back to a drawing board wielded by Shiite elders and mullahs.

But Shiites comprise some 15 per cent of Afghanistan's population and Karzai clearly coveted their votes in the looming presidential election.

In July, he quietly signed a revised Shiite Personal Status Law that outlines family law for the religious minority, effectively establishing a different set of legal rules for 5 million Afghans.

Life is harsh for all women in this nation, one of only three countries in the world where females die earlier than males. The Ministry of Women's Affairs just released figures showing record violence against women in the first three months of 2009 everything from rape to acid dousing of schoolgirls. But the numbers cited, 1,149 reported acts of violence, represent just a fraction of un-reported reality.

And now, with oppression enshrined in law assuming ratification in parliament the situation has become even grimmer for Shiite women in particular.

The same women who had courageously taken to the street in Kabul to protest against the original draft many attending a conference on women's rights in the capital organized by the Canadian NGO Rights and Democracy found out about this development only when it was published in the government's official gazette on July 27.

The "softening":

Palwasha Hassan, director of the Kabul office of Rights and Democracy, lifts the scarf that was casually arranged around her shoulders and settles it over her crown. If photos are to be taken, she does not want to appear bareheaded. "I have enough problems," she mutters.

The NGO did a technical review of the original draft law based on comparative research of civil codes in other Islamic countries such as Iran. Hassan and her colleagues were very careful that all proposed changes be drawn up within the context of Islamic scholarship and then presented their alternative to the justice ministry, and circulated it to all parliamentarians.

There was nothing in the Qur'an and other Islamic texts to justify abuses as promulgated in the original legislation.

"That legislation didn't go through any transparent process," says Hassan. "It was a shock to everyone when it came out. We couldn't understand why it would have been passed as it was."

The women's version argued that there was not only one single interpretation of Qur'anic law and asked for Islamic-based changes. "We were optimistic."

That optimism has shrivelled.

Hassan acknowledges improvements in the rewritten legislation women's mobility rights respected (in law if not in practice); the right to education; latitude in custody disputes. But her sharp eye caught immediately the arcane language that simply window-dressed some of the more objectionable statutes.

"Problematic issues came back. Things like temporary marriage were actually just brought in another way. Even the polygamy laws are written in the language of men. You know, Muslim males are allowed to have four wives but this was always intended for special circumstances when a wife is barren or there are other sexual problems, or to care for a brother's widow. Instead, we have rich men saying, well, I want four wives because I can afford it."

The marriage age proscription, she notes, can be manipulated in the case of orphans who become wards of grandfathers or guardians. "They can still marry girls off as young as 9."

Giving away a girl as "compensation" to settle a dispute between tribes or families known as baad is not uncommon in Afghanistan. This speaks to the patriarchal culture, where females are little more than chattel, and not Qur'anic law.

Family honour, secured at the expense of females, often flies in the face of an Afghan constitution that bestows equal rights on men and women. Afghanistan is also a signatory to many international treaties on equality and human rights. In Afghan households, however, these mean nothing.

Afghanistan's criminal law, moreover, contains no specific condemnation of rape or sexual assault. There is only the crime of zina, which refers to sexual intercourse outside of a valid marriage, applied more often to the victim of rape than the perpetrator. The shame and the punishment is hers.

A similar loophole works in favour of men in the new legislation that allows them to withhold maintenance to wives who refuse sex.

"The issue is, how do you prove or disprove sexual non-obedience?" asks Hassan. "Surely this is an intimate matter between a husband and a wife. How can she prove that she's been obedient in the bedroom?"

It takes formidable resilience to lobby for women's rights in Afghanistan. Females are harassed, threatened, and too often murdered for raising their voices.

"We have to continue this fight for at least the next generation," says Hassan. "Maybe that will be enough time. You cannot change the way Afghans have lived for centuries in just a few years."

And then she sighs, wearily. "Sometimes, it's just too much."



Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre.

Before Canadians start getting indignant about the very obviously deplorable treatment of women in Afghanistan, they should start cleaning up their own festering MALE SHARIA LAW as practiced in Ontario where Ontario Superior Court judges use a similar burden of proof applied against men in what is a very obvious program to deprive men of legal rights.

In Ontario, women are automatically given custody, women are almost never ordered to pay spousal support to men or for court costs or child support to be paid to men except with a few very rare but well publicized examples.