Saturday, April 18, 2009

Shia and Sharia: Afghanistan and Pakistan Update

by Laura Smith-Gary

We've been following this story for weeks: Afghanistan passes a law that legalizes marital rape for members of its Shia population, as well as preventing women from going outside their houses without permission, inheriting property, and or taking custody of their children in the case of divorce. Various Western leaders, including President Obama, denounce the law. Fantastically brave Afghan women protest the law as crowds hurl stones and spit curses.

Yesterday, President Karzai announced that he will review the law that would allow marital rape and send it back to parliment and revise it if it infringes the rights laid out in Afghanistan's constitution. Still, he says that perhaps the law was mistranslated by the Western Press and said at a press conference, "I don't see any problems with it." The example of misunderstanding he cited, according to the Associated Press report I just linked to, is that women are allowed to leave their houses without their husband's permission in an emergency. Meanwhile, a cleric who supports the law insists that it doesn't allow rape, it just lets men refuse to feed their wives if the wives don't fulfill their sexual desires.

Still, the fact that the law will (probably, hopefully?) be changed is good news, and seems to indicate that international condemnation does have some effect on the president's decisions regarding human rights issues.

Meanwhile, just across the border in Pakistan's Taliban-infested Swat region, the federal government has officially ceded control of the area to Islamic militants, imposing Sharia law on the region and allowing the Taliban to reign in a desperate bid for relative peace and stability in the region. In early April, the consequences of the Taliban's rule in Swat was made graphically evident when a video surfaced of a teenage girl being publicly flogged after being accused by her family of having an affair.

The political, religious, and military situations in Pakistan and Afghanistan are deeply interconnected, and cannot be addressed separately. At the same time, I am struggling to formulate an idea of how they should be addressed. I'm encouraged that Karzai was pressured into acknowledging that a marital rape law is Not Okay, but international opinion won't be able to change the minds of the Afghan stone-throwers, and it certainly won't be able to bring human rights and peace into the Swat region. I see education as being a key element in long-term change in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially education for women. My very first Equal Writes post was about the fabulous Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute , which builds schools for girls in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I think Pakistan, Afghanistan, the U.S., and the international community should be strategically and deliberately investing in programs like these. However, that's not a complete solution, or one that will have any immediate effect. Military action, while in some ways appealing, also has many significant downsides, most of which are glaringly obvious after the debacle of the Iraq war. We can't count on aid reaching the populations that need it.

Yet we also can't turn a blind eye on blatant human rights violations. We can't assert, as do the abysmally ignorant commentators in many of the articles I read on the marital rape law, that the concept of "marital rape" is meaningless in Afghan culture because and therefore no one's getting hurt, and that if women don't like it they should just leave the country. We can't condemn Shia women to virtual house arrest and abandon teenage girls into the hands of the Taliban, but we can't overestimate our ability to clean up "messes" like these or underestimate the potential disaster of a truly failed state in Central or South Asia. So what do we do? Really. I'm really asking. Is there a was to protect and support women's rights (and human rights in general) in these explosive regions without making them, you know, explode? What in the world is it?

(If you'd like to donate to support the cause of the female protestors in Kabul, a Feministe commentator has offered to match the first $1,000 in donations made to the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan by Feministe readers. I don't know enough about them to personally vouch for the organization, but from the fifteen minutes of research I did it seems legit and effective, though controversial in some areas because it's secular.)

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