Afghan Law on Women Brings Societal Conflict Onto World Stage

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 5, 2009

KABUL, April 4 -- Outside the gates of Kabul University, young Shiite women in fashionable black jackets and scarves hopped off city buses each morning last week, then strolled to biology and law classes alongside clusters of male students, chatting about career plans.

But in a carpeted mosque a few blocks away, the Shiite imam admonished male worshipers Friday to keep close watch on their wives and daughters, saying it is "Satan's work" when women visit public places such as shrines wearing attractive clothing. Behind a curtain, female worshipers enveloped in burqas listened in silence.

Like Afghan society at large, the country's Shiite Muslim minority is grappling with conflicting pressures between a strong tradition of male family dominance and a gradually evolving acceptance of women's modern rights. Usually, this struggle takes place out of the public eye, within families and religious communities.

In the past few days, however, the legal repression of Afghan Shiite women has created a global uproar, bringing condemnation from Western governments and U.N. officials, just as Washington and NATO are debating their military and economic commitment to Afghanistan and the faltering war against Islamist insurgents.

Critics charge that the new Shiite Personal Status Law, signed last week by President Hamid Karzai, would enshrine the rights of Shiite men to sexually enslave their wives and keep them imprisoned at home. Western leaders have compared the law to the Taliban era of 1996 to 2001, when Sunni extremists ruled Afghanistan and banned women from work and school.

Karzai defended the law at a news conference Saturday, saying he had seen nothing in it that justified international concerns and suggesting that Western critics had misinterpreted the contents. However, he said he would have his justice minister review the law "very carefully" to make sure it does not contradict the Afghan constitution.

"I have studied the law. . . . What I saw did not reflect what has been said in the Western media," Karzai told reporters in his palace. Reading from one section, he said, "a woman may leave home for legitimate purposes . . . it does not say she is not allowed to go out."

But the contretemps has raised questions about the government's commitment to women's rights, the degree to which Afghan society is capable of cultural and religious change, and whether the president is sacrificing democratic progress to court support from conservative Shiite leaders in order to run for reelection in August.

Much like previous controversies over the legal prosecution of Afghans who converted to Christianity and questioned aspects of the Koran, the foreign furor over restrictive Shiite family law has highlighted a startling disconnect between this conservative Muslim society and its supporters in the Western world.

The controversy has also drawn attention to the diversity within the Afghan Shiite populace, a minority of mostly ethnic Hazaras that has long been looked down upon by majority Sunnis. Shiites live in some of the poorest rural areas, where female literacy is near zero, and in some of the most progressive urban districts, where girls and women participate in education and professions at a far higher rate than Sunnis.

In interviews here over the past several days, Shiite men and women of all ages and backgrounds said it is their belief that men should rule over female family members. But while some said women need to be sheltered from danger and that men know what is best for them, others said women's freedoms are expanding naturally with the times.

"It is a man's right to tell the woman where to go and what to do. For us, this is normal; it is common sense," said Farishta, 21, a psychology student at Kabul University. "In older times, the husband or father controlled 100 percent. Now, in more modern times, the control is about 20 percent. We go to college and courses. We respect our fathers and husbands completely, but it is only God who gives human beings freedom."

Syed Hussein Alemi Balkhi, a Shiite legislator who helped draft the new law, said it offers Shiite women extensive freedoms and that it was needed because current Afghan family law follows Sunni Muslim guidelines. He asserted that the new law does not require wives to submit sexually to their husbands or seek their permission to leave home for culturally acceptable activities, including school, jobs, weddings, family visits and medical appointments.

"There needs to be a law for Shiism in Afghanistan, so that 20 percent of the population can solve their family problems according to their own law," Balkhi said, noting that the legislation was debated, revised and approved in parliament. "I am amazed that no one is mentioning all the good things we provided for women in the law. If there are problems, we can solve them without foreign interference."

But foreign governments are not the only critics. Afghan human rights groups and female legislators fought for months to include such provisions in the law as older minimum ages for marriage and more children's custody rights for divorced women. They said some Shiite leaders were using the need for a national minority "identity" as an excuse to legally impose regressive restrictions on women.

Nader Nadery, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, pointed out that Afghan prisons contain many women who were sent there for disobeying their husbands, and that in rural areas where people are less educated, a Shiite man may forbid his wife to visit a male doctor in the belief that it is culturally and religiously unacceptable.

"We are extremely concerned that this law would give a legal basis to the further victimization of women," Nadery said, adding that some liberal Shiite clerics and scholars had also raised objections. "It seems to define women in sexual terms and to further narrow and suppress their role in family life. This is extremely disturbing."

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