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Controversial Afghan Law Leaves Shiite Women’s Rights in Question

BY Online DA  August 21, 2009 at 4:11 PM EST

Afghan women protest law; AP photo

The new Shiite Personal Status Law, which was approved July 27 but human rights proponents say they just learned of last week, dictates that Shiite men now have the legal right to starve their wives if their sexual demands are not met and that Shiite women must obtain permission from their husbands to even leave their houses, “except in extreme circumstances,” reported the New York Times and Reuters.

The quiet signing of the law a few weeks before the country’s second-ever presidential elections was viewed by some as an attempt by Karzai, seeking a second term, to appease Sheik Muhammad Asif Mohseni, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric who helped draft the original version of the law, and conservative members of the population, according to the Times.

Official results of Thursday’s election are still pending.

Supporters of the law, intended only for Shiite Muslims who make up about 15 percent of the country’s population of about 30 million, say it is meant to protect women, but human rights groups say it is repressive and marks a troubling trend that could justify marital rape.

“As Karzai’s government has grown weaker he has increasingly turned to some of society’s most conservative elements for support,” wrote Rachel Reid, the Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, in an Aug. 18 Washington Post opinion article.

“There was hope that this wouldn’t come into law,” she said. “But it came in the middle of the election chaos when there wasn’t as much scrutiny and now Afghan women, Shia women, are stuck with the repressive law in their statute book.”

Alexander Thier, senior Afghan law adviser for the U.S. Institute of Peace, also called the law “a step backward in every sense. … It’s a step backward for Afghan women as well as Afghan men and Afghan families. It’s a step backward for the Afghan government, both the president and the Parliament.”

The law appeared to be a nod to “the militia men, the strong men and the mullahs and warlords that kind of run the show in Shiite areas of the country,” said Anand Gopal, Afghanistan correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. “Karzai is adept at passing laws like this in order to win political support from various factions of the country.”

Gopal discussed the revised law and women’s rights issues with the Online NewsHour from Afghanistan:

The law repealed one of the most controversial clauses in the earlier version that said a husband could demand sex with his wife every four days.

When the initial law was passed, it sparked unusual street protests by about 300 women in Kabul, but that was countered by about 1,000 other demonstrators who threw stones and shouted “Death to the slaves of Christians,” according to media reports.

The United States and other Western countries decried the original legislation: President Obama called it “abhorrent,” while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was “deeply concerned.” But they have yet to comment on the changes codified in July.

“It creates tension between the international community and not only the Afghan government, but sort of the conservative the religious establishment,” Thier said. “The further apart we are from each other the more difficult it becomes for us to succeed together.”

Observers pointed out, however, that the law also shows Karzai’s attempts to preserve Afghanistan’s cultural landscape, which is often at odds with Western ideas.

“The conservative religious establishment is incredibly threatened by the trends toward modernization that have been undertaken in the last eight years,” said Thier. “Everything from the equality clause in the constitution to the number of women in the Parliament; they feel assailed by modernization and they are attempting to strike back at that.”

“In the spring most of the outcry was caused by the West,” Gopal said. “One of the biggest claims of the people protesting in favor of the law was that ‘this is an attempt by the West to impose their cultural values on us.’”

Karzai has said that the West’s concerns about the legislation are “inappropriate” and may have been based on “misinterpretations,” according to Reuters. He did promise last year to amend the law if it was found to violate the constitution.

Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which also rebuked the legislation, said another law passed earlier this year to eliminate violence against women should theoretically take precedence over the Shiite Personal Status Law and may counteract its most contentious provisions.

“In practice, this will depend very much on how the judiciary balances the content of the two laws,” Colville told Reuters. “The new law could also be challenged on the grounds that it does not accord with the Afghan constitution.”

Reid pointed out in her op-ed that there have been “bright spots” for women’s rights in Afghanistan, including women holding seats in the Parliament and millions of girls now attending primary school. But school attendance for girls plummets in secondary school, violence against women is endemic and women in public life are routinely threatened, she wrote.

And although the Afghan constitution declares equal rights to both sexes, the reality is often different.

“In most of the country, women simply cannot leave the house without a male guardian –or in general at all,” Gopal said. “It becomes very difficult for women to participate in civil society.”