Peter Dejong/AP
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai

After International Outcry, Karzai Reconsiders Shiite Law

April 06, 2009 12:00 PM
by Rachel Balik
Reports that a new law for Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan allegedly puts severe restraints on women's freedoms has sparked outrage around the world.

World Leaders Criticize Law

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has said that western countries have “misinterpreted” the Shiite Personal Status Law

It only applies to Shiite Muslims, a minority comprising 10 to 15 percent of the Afghan population. (Most Afghan Muslims are Sunnis.) The bill has passed through both houses of the Afghan Parliament. The details of the law have not been made public yet but evidently pertain to marriage, divorce and other family matters such as inheritance. Reports indicate that it includes provisions that prevent women from leaving the house without permission, legalizes rape within a marriage and limits custody of children to fathers and grandfathers.

Karzai is having the law reviewed, according to The Guardian. One of the international leaders to express concern over the rules was British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

“You cannot have British troops fighting, and in some cases dying, to save a democracy where that democracy is infringing human rights,” the paper quoted Brown as saying.

Brown told The Guardian that Karzai's response was the “law would not be enacted in the way it had been presented.”

There had been speculation that Karzai hoped the law would help him secure Shiite votes in time for the August 20 election. Meanwhile, Afghan female parliamentarians and the UN are seriously concerned about the law’s alleged infringements on women’s rights.

In a 2008 New York Times piece, Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman argued that for hundreds of years, “Islamic law offered the most liberal and humane legal principles available anywhere in the world.” He investigates why the law continues to be unpalatable to Westerners, and describes some of the actual tenets regarding women and families.

Although all Muslims are governed by Sharia, the Shia-Sunni split among Muslims, which occurred in 632, includes differing opinions on Muslim law and democracy. Over the past 50 years, the division has played a key role in exacerbating Middle East tensions.

Background: Governing under Sharia law and the Shia-Sunni split

Sharia is the name of the body of Islamic law and tradition as stated in the Qur’an and derived from other teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, called Hadith, as well as scholarly commentary. The code dictates rules for all aspects of Muslim life, and is most specific pertaining to marriage and divorce, the Council on Foreign Relations says. The criminal laws have sparked a great deal of controversy in the 20th and 21st century, as they allow for extreme forms of punishment. Specifically, “hadd” punishments, which permit exacting revenge via the “eye-for-an-eye” method, have seemed gruesome to Westerners.
Hadd punishment has always been at odds with the secular systems of justice, and Sharia is often seen as being incompatible with democracy. In many countries, Muslims have argued for the implementation of Sharia law alongside the laws of the government. They say it is not barbaric, as many Westerners believe; rather, the legal code “nurtures humanity,” the BBC explains.

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Related Topics: Spousal rape

For centuries, countries did not recognize a woman's right to refuse to have sex with her husband. In the United States, the issue was raised on a national level in 1978, when John Rideout of Oregon was charged with first-degree rape for allegedly raping his 23-year-old wife Greta. Oregon didn't allow a rape exemption if a person was married or living with the alleged victim. Rideout was eventually acquitted because, as a juror said, they didn't know who to trust.

The United States did not outlaw marital rape in every state until 1993, though 33 states offer husbands some exemptions, according to a 1999 paper on marital rape.

Other countries have recognized spousal rape as a crime, including India, which outlawed it in 2006, according to the Independent. 

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