Sunday, April 12, 2009

Controversy continues to swirl around Afghan rape law

Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington said yesterday that the Afghani government wouldn’t force women to have sex with their husbands.

The global community reacted with outrage last week when the news spread that Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a bill placing the country’s Shia Muslim population under Shariah law, in the process apparently legalizing spousal rape, child marriage and prohibiting women from leaving their homes without the express permission of their husbands. President Obama called the new law “abhorrent”, the UN’s Development Fund for Women said it “legalized rape” and NATO wondered aloud whether they should continue to support the Karzai government if it failed to stand up for basic human rights.

But Afghani Ambassador Said Jawad told Bloomberg Television that he was confident that the new law would never go into effect because it violates women’s equality provisions in the Afghani constitution. He then offered an incredibly lame excuse as to why President Karzai signed this awful bit of legislation in the first place - he apparently never read the bill so he didn't know what measures it actually contained. I have a hard time believing that explanation, especially since early reports had Karzai backing the law, presumably as a way to appeal to religious hard-liners to support his re-election bid this summer, and since he signed the law with no public announcement - perhaps trying to slip it past his Western patrons to avoid their protests.

Meanwhile an influential Shia cleric in Afghanistan defended the law and slammed Western governments for ‘meddling’ in Afghani affairs by protesting the legislation. “The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people,” was the question Mohammad Asif Mohseni asked reporters at a press conference in Kabul. He went on to show petitions signed by hundreds of women in support of the new law, and pointed out that it was passed by the Afghani parliament after three years of debate. And while the law as written applies only to the country’s Shia population, Mawlawi Habibullah Ahsam, one of the country’s top Sunni clerics, said there was no reason for the law not to apply to Afghanistan’s Sunnis as well.

Mohseni does raise a difficult issue for the US, NATO and other members of the Afghan coalition - if Afghanistan is indeed a democracy then they do have an inherent right to pass whatever laws they see fit, no matter how repellent they may be. The tough question for Afghanistan's supporters is do they want to continue to back a president and a government that seems ready to undue years of forward human rights progress and drag Afghani women back to the Stone Age.
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