Thursday, April 2, 2009

New legislation in Afghanistan: worse than the Taliban?

by Laura Smith-Gary

According to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, U.S. backed President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, the nation's trumpeted First Democratically Elected President, the "fresh start" for the war-torn, extremist-plagued land, the man whose inauguration was attended by all three living U.S. presidents, recently signed a law that will ravage the rights of his country's Shi'a women. The Guardian, which broke the story, reports that Afghan Senator Humaira Namati has stated the law is "worse than during the Taliban." Remember the Taliban? The government we invaded Afghanistan to destroy?

While the official document has not been released, U.N. officials who have read it report that the law would prohibit Shi'a women from refusing sex with their husbands and from leaving the house, working, going to school, or visiting the doctor without their husband's permission. In the case of a divorce, only fathers and grandfathers would be eligible to take custody of children.

The constitution of Afghanistan (here is a link to an unoffical English translation) states that "Any kind of discrimination and privilege between the citizens of Afghanistan are prohibited. The citizens of Afghanistan -- whether man or woman -- have equal rights and duties before the law." (Article Twenty-two, Chapter 2 Article 1, the translation I linked above). It also allows, however, that "Courts shall apply Shia school of law in cases dealing with personal matters involving the followers of Shia Sect in accordance with the provisions of law." (Article 131, Chapter 7 Article 16, same translation). Most news stories report that Shi'a Muslims compose 10% of Afghanistan's population, and the CIA fact sheet on Afghanistan says the country's population is 19% Shi'a. That means that when this law goes into effect somewhere between 1.7 and 3.2 women can legally be raped and can't legally step out their front doors without their rapist's permission.

In promoting this atrocity, Karzai is pandering for votes from the conservative Shi'a elements in his country and some key conservative "swing votes." As the Canadian newspaper National Post's editorial board wrote , "The world already knows Mr. Karzai's government to be corrupt and ineffective. Now we also know that the President is willing to sell out the country's women in a crass bid to buy votes from Afghans whose world view is still locked in medieval times."

When the Guardian first broke this story on March 31st, the international community was wincing away from condemning this law, citing cultural differences and the importance of national sovereignty. The next day, however, held flickers of hope: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is said to have privately confronted Karzai, as well as giving a speech emphasizing the importance of women's rights to the Obama administration's foreign policy. Scandinavian foreign ministers are demanding explanations, and Canada is officially furious. According to the original Guardian article, though, the head of women's affairs at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission says that "it's too late" for international outrage to have any effect.

Without disregarding the the many complicated political, diplomatic, cultural, religious, and military dimensions of the United State's relationship with Afghanistan and President Karzai, or all of those complicated dimensions within Afghanistan, or all of those complicated dimensions within the region, I still think it's clear that this law is a travesty. If we don't stand up against this, if we don't have enough leverage to say that worse-than-Taliban laws are not fucking acceptable, then why in God's name are we sending more soldiers to kill and die and bleed into the poppies?

For more on the state of women's rights in Afghanistan, Amnesty International and Afghanistan Online give summaries and statistics.

Should you wish to contact the U.S. State Department, here is the link.


At April 6, 2009 at 8:00 PM , Anonymous Dan said...

Afghanistan is a quagmire with bleak prospects for human rights. I am reminded of the civilian aid workers who were deliberately targetted and killed in Afghanistan last August:

I can't help thinking that they were targetted because of their work promoting the education of girls in Afghanistan.

Yes, we must stand up to this. I don't know exactly how we should go about it, but it seems to me that having troops on the ground in Afghanistan is going to be essential to support ongoing and future work to establish and promote basic human rights.

At September 5, 2009 at 9:51 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps this revelation shows once and for all that 'Democracy' is not the perfect panacea that we in the West often make it out to be.

After all, America's ideological justification in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Vietnam, during the Cold War and in almost every action it has taken since 1776, is that 'Democracy is the Beacon of Truth and Justice that will bring light to the world.'

On the contrary however, just as a Dictatorship can be a good thing, IF the Dictator only has the best intentions and works for the benefit of all, a Democracy can only be a 'Good' thing if the electorate are 'Good.'

Indeed, if the majority of the electorate consists of money grubbing hypocrites, bigots and self-serving morons, then the elected government be given its mandate and pass laws to please the majority. So when push comes to shove, as this article states, a Democracy can be even 'Worse' than a Dictatorship, because it is reassured by the arrogant delusion that 'Democratic = Good.'

At September 7, 2009 at 6:40 PM , Blogger LSG said...

Nice timing, jamesuscroft! I have a post going up today about this very issue. We'd like to think democracy leads inexorably to freedom and equality, and unfortunately that is not the case.

I do think we need to acknowledge, though, (and I'm just now realizing I neglected this point in my post that's about to appear) that there are many powers working in democracies' decisions besides the will of the majority. As we've seen domestically and abroad, it's not too difficult for some organizations to create the appearance of a majority through demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, or even riots. It's also possible to create a kind of false majority by spreading misinformation, where the majority might now actually agree but be pulled together by fear or misunderstanding. This shows, I think, not that democracy is necessarily flawed, but that it is insufficient -- without education and engagement of the citizenry, it is all too easy to manipulate.

I didn't make this point strongly enough, and I think it's important -- when a democracy makes a decision that is, for instance, anti-woman, it doesn't necessarily mean that the majority of the citizens are anti-woman, but that for some reason the voice of the anti-women citizens is louder.


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