Friday, April 17, 2009

Afghan women demonstrate for equality

On Wednesday approximately 300 women in Afghanistan were attacked for demanding equality with men. Counter demonstrators in Kabul threw stones and knocked women to the ground at a rally where women were protesting a law they said would greatly restrict their freedoms.

The demonstration was sparked by a new law passed by the legislature and signed by President Karzai that regulates the actions of women of the Shiite minority with provisions stating women should receive a husband's permission before leaving the house and gives men the right to have sex with their wives on demand. An outpouring of international criticism has urged President Karzai to shelve the bill.

This from the Christian Science Monitor:
The law that sparked the outrage – which was passed by both houses of parliament and signed late last month by President Hamid Karzai – regulates the actions of women of the Shiite minority, which makes up about 15 percent of the population. Among the bill's many articles, activists point to a few particularly oppressive statutes: that women should get their husband's permission before leaving the house, and husbands have the right to have sex with their wives whenever they wish.

An outpouring of international criticism has pushed President Karzai to shelve the bill for now and pledge to reconsider any portions of the law that contradict the Afghan constitution, which guarantees equal rights for men and women. The measure also stipulates that no law should contradict Islam – a fact some conservatives use to argue that the law in question can be reconciled with the constitution.

Although the majority of local opposition to the law started with nongovernmental organizations, the movement has spread to students and others. Still, the women were vastly outnumbered by angry demonstrators who favor the law – including hundreds of burqa-clad women, who chanted, "God is great! Long live Islam!" Many of these counterprotesters hurled stones and spat on their rivals.
But as Juan Cole points out the real issue goes beyond the specifics of the law being discussed:
The government's pledge to amend the law so as to forbid marital rape misses the point. Afghanistan has a civil code on personal status, and all citizens should be under it. If the state farms out personal status law to a Shiite court, then a conservative interpretation of Shiite law (sharia) will become the de facto law of the land for Shiites. Moreover, there is the issue of the state creating the Shiites as a separate group not under national law.

The issue should not be construed as a couple of objectionable provisions of Shiite Islamic law, but the desirability in a democracy of having a uniform civil code for all citizens. Karzai is widely thought to have signed the bill to pander to Shiite clerics, in a bid to attract votes from the Shiite minority, some 22 percent of the population. Karzai is contesting a presidential election in August.

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