Supporters of the Afghan law which critics claim legalizes marital rape and restricts the rights of women say they will oppose amending the legislation significantly despite protests against it.
“A change in this law will be illegal and against democracy,” says Sayed Abdul Latif Sajadi,” a senior Shia cleric in Kabul who played a leading role in drawing up the legislation and pushing it through parliament. “Any change will be against the wishes of four million people.” In an implied threat he said that the Shia clergy had so far successfully dissuaded their followers from taking to the streets in support of the law. “If the government understands the sensitivity of this they will not touch it,” he adds.
The Shia Family Law, which has been denounced inside and outside Afghanistan, applies only to the four million Afghans who are Shia. It is the first time in predominantly Sunni Muslim Afghanistan that the Shia, mostly members of the long-oppressed Hazara ethnic group, have had their rights legally defined and recognised.
“Those Afghans who protest against the law just want to make the West happy,” says Mohammed Sarwar Jahadi, a member of parliament and a former prisoner of the Taliban who represents the Hazara heartland of Bamyan province in central Afghanistan. He adds that the law was discussed in parliament over two-and-a-half years and was whittled down from 750 to 249 articles but “during that time we didn’t hear a single protest.” He asserts that it was only after foreign leaders like President Obama, who described the law as “abhorrent”, had come out against it, that it became a political issue in Afghanistan.
Mr Jahadi is more open to amendments to the law than the Shia clergy, but does not think there is much wrong with the one already passed. “I don’t accept that it is a violation of human rights,” he says, claiming that the law’s provisions have been misreported and they have yet to be published in their final version.
Sayed Sajadi, himself a Hazara from the city of Ghazni south west of Kabul, says he was surprised by the strength of protests against the law outside and inside Afghanistan. “It was unexpected,” he says, “because already 99 per cent of Afghan women only leave the house with their husband’s permission.”
The Taliban are likely to be pleased by the outcry over the new law because it will make it more difficult for the US, UK and the NATO powers to demonise them as the sole proponents of the subjugation of women in Afghanistan. They have burned girls’ schools, insisted on women wearing the burqa and murdered campaigners for women’s rights. But most pro-government Afghan leaders are unlikely and often hypocriticial proponents of equality between men and women since this is against the norms of Afghanistan’s highly conservative and religious society.
The Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier in the week blithely assured Gordon Brown that the law would be reviewed and amendments introduced. But he is likely to find this difficult to do in practice because the Shia community wants legal recognition and the new law, while undoubtedly oppressive to women, largely reflects their actual condition. Many Afghans say that in any case the relationship between men and women in their country is none of the business of foreign non-Muslim politicians and NATO commanders. Women protesting against the law were denounced by counter-demonstrators chanting: “Death to the enemies of Islam! We want Islamic law!”
The protestors had started their two-mile march to parliament outside the gleaming new Khatimal Nabiyeen mosque, the centre of a recently founded Shia religious university. It is run by Ayatollah Asif Mohseni, the most powerful Shia cleric in Afghanistan, whom the demonstrators see as the main influence behind the new family law. Passed into law last month, this says a husband can demand sex with his wife every four days unless she is sick or would be injured by intercourse. It also regulates when and for what reasons a wife can leave her home alone without her husband’s permission.
Ayatollah Mohseni, while adamantly rejecting changes in the law, has suggested that it does not imply sexual servitude of woman and only means that husband and wife should sleep in the same room every fourth night. But a translation of the law appears to read that every fourth day a man “can pass the night with his wife, unless it is harmful for either side, or any of them is suffering from any kind of sexual disease. It is essential for the woman to submit to the man’s sexual desire.”
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘ is published by Scribner.