Legalized Oppression of Women: Western Outrage over Discriminatory Afghan Law

By and Shoib Najafizada

A new law signed by President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan requires Shiite women to ask their husband's permission before leaving the home and forces them to have sexual intercourse. The West is outraged, and German politicians are mulling restrictions in development aid.

It was only recently that Afghan President Hamid Karzai placed his signature under a new law pertaining to Shiite families in Afghanistan. But it didn't take long for a storm of protest to begin washing over Kabul.

Human rights activists say the new law grants even fewer rights to women than when the Islamist Taliban held sway. And in the West, more and more heads have begun shaking in disbelief. The US and Canada, in particular, are putting pressure on Karzai as a result of the law with other NATO member-states following suit.

As intense as the frustration has become, news of the new law passed in Kabul was slow to arrive in the West. The Guardian filed a first report from the Afghan capital about the law earlier this week headlined "Worse than the Taliban." But the daily only had access to excerpts of the text. Now, the rest of the law has been circulated, the full text of which SPIEGEL ONLINE has obtained -- and it is even worse than the initial reports indicate.

'Sexual Desires of Her Husband'

Especially shocking for Western observers is that part of the law which deals with the sex lives of Shiites. The Afghan constitution provides for Shiites, which represent between 10 and 20 percent of the population, to pass their own family law based on their legal traditions. But the new law is particularly restrictive. Article 132, for example, mandates that "the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband." Furthermore, if her husband is not travelling or sick, the wife is required to have sex with him at least every fourth night. The only exception is if the wife herself is ill.

Article 133 is just as problematic. "The husband can stop the wife from any unnecessary act," it reads. Furthermore, the law requires wives to get the permission of their husbands before they leave the house, except in cases of emergency. In addition, the legal age of marriage for Shiite women has been lowered from 18 to 16.

The timing of the new law could hardly have been worse. With leaders of NATO member states gathered in Strasbourg on Friday -- just days after a far-reaching conference on the disastrous situation in the country came to an end earlier this week -- the legislation seems designed to offer proof as to just how little the Western alliance has accomplished in Afghanistan. The law provides state backing to the oppression of women and seems designed to almost force Shiite men to debase their wives.

Already, Karzai was under attack in the West for the advances currently being made by both al-Qaida and the Taliban in the country. In response, Kabul has long been quick to point out the progress that has been made -- often emphasizing new schools for girls and the fact that women have been elected into parliament. The new law now makes such claims of improvement seem absurd.

Violation of the Constitution

Women's rights activists are attacking the new Shiite family law. "It is a clear violation of the constitution," says Soria Sabhrang of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission in Kabul. "This law will increase violence against women and no woman will have a place to go for help."

Member of parliament Sabrina Saqeb is likewise outraged. "I suspect that Karzai didn't even read the law through. He was just depending on the word of the Hazara," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE, referring to the primarily Shiite ethnic group.

Praise for Karzai comes from an uncomfortable quarter: the Taliban, who Karzai likes to describe as "the enemies of Afghanistan." "The Shiite law is similar to the rules of the Taliban. We support it," Sabihulla Mujahed, who claims to be a Taliban spokesman, told SPIEGEL ONLINE by telephone. Just how tight Mujahed's ties to the Taliban's political leadership really are remains unclear.

Upcoming presidential elections in Afghanistan likely played a role in Karzai's signing of the law. His re-election is in no way a sure thing and his influence outside of the capital Kabul is limited. Many in Afghanistan consider him to be little more than a Western puppet and he has few successes to point to. Support for Karzai is particularly thin in religious circles, leading many to suspect that the new law is an attempt to win over the ultra conservative. He may also be hoping to win a few extra votes from among the Hazara.

Large Part of the Problem

But among those NATO countries that are currently involved in the alliance's mission in Afghanistan, Karzai's signing of the law is a shock. As recently as Tuesday, with 90 countries and international organizations having gathered in The Hague to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, the international community tried to convince itself that at least some of the goals established for the country have been achieved. In the end, though, many admitted internally that most aspects of the mission aren't going as planned. Karzai's decision seemed to underscore the fact that he himself is a large part of the problem.

The news of the law, in any case, was a major topic of conversation at the summit in The Hague. Instead of ignoring such ticklish questions, as is so often the modus operandi at international summits, the issue was confronted head on. Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb posed the question as to whether the Afghan government, or even President Karzai himself, would be willing to make a statement on the "alarming news" from Kabul. But by the end of the day, no statement was forthcoming.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's press advisors, though, were careful to call on a female Afghan journalist during the closing press conference, knowing that she would ask a question about the law. "My message is very clear," Clinton responded. "Women's rights are a central part of American foreign policy in the Obama administration. They are not an add-on or an afterthought."

And Karzai, even if he chose not to publicly comment on the law, knows what the Western alliance thinks. Sources among diplomats who were present at the Afghanistan Conference said that Clinton specifically mentioned the new family law in a brief face-to-face with Karzai. A short time later, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Canadian broadcaster CBE that "making progress on human rights for women is a significant component of the international engagement in Afghanistan. It's a significant change we want to see from the bad old days of the Taliban." Harper went on to say: "I think President Karzai and those other actors who may be supporting this policy will find themselves under considerable pressure."

Just what tools are available to the West to get Afghanistan to reverse the law is unclear. NATO governments have long been careful to keep a distance from domestic policy decisions in Afghanistan in order to avoid the impression that Karzai is just a puppet.

Behind closed doors, however, the pressure will likely be intense. Bernd Mützelburg, Germany's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has reportedly made it clear to the Kabul government that Berlin is displeased. In the past the Afghan president has tended to bow to such pressure, but with elections approaching, it is difficult to say whether he will this time as well.

Günter Nooke, Germany's Federal Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid, had sharp words for the government in Kabul. "The Afghan government, with this law, breaks promises it has made to the international community over protection of human rights," Nooke said to SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Whenever money becomes an issue, many things are promised to us. Then nothing happens."

Nooke called for restrictions to development aid in response. "When laws like this come through, we have to use our veto power," he said, "and here it's a simple matter of money."

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