Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan police officers stop Shiite counter protesters in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday,
April 15, 2009.

Despite Fear of Violence, Afghan Women Wage Protest Against Restrictive Law

April 16, 2009 03:00 PM
by Rachel Balik
Hundreds of Afghan women faced violent resistance when they organized a protest in Kabul against a new marriage law that limits women's rights.

Afghan Women Demonstrate "Outrage" Over Restrictive Marriage Law

Many Afghan women were prevented from attending the protest in Kabul by their husbands, and some even encountered bus drivers that refused to let them board. But between 200 and 300 women still managed to gather around the Khatam Al Nabi mosque operated by a Shia cleric who has publicly endorsed a law that severely restricts women's rights. The law, which only affects Shiites, prohibits women from leaving the house without their husbands' permission.

The law incensed the international community, the protest revealed that many Afghan women are as angry as Western leaders and human rights organizations, The Guardian reports. Human Rights Watch's Asia director suggested that President Hamid Karzai had sacrificed women's rights for the sake of political pandering.

The law's most controversial section requires that women provide their husbands with sexual intercourse at every four days, earning the law the reputation of legalizing rape. One protester told the BBC that the women were determined to have the law overturned, and other said it would restore the level of tyranny that existed under the Taliban.
The women who had struggled to arrive at the protest also found themselves pelted with stones by a group of male and female counter-protestors. Fear of repercussions may have stopped others from attending the protest as other instances of violence surged throughout the country. A girls' school was vandalized when teachers tried to attend the protest and policemen came to the protest ostensibly to separate the two groups, but only threatened the women.

The law is currently under judicial review. President Karzai hopes the review will show the international community that the law is acceptable, but one protestor told the Globe and Mail that the review is insufficient, and that the law, which "shows women are the property of men," must be changed.

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Background: The Shiite Personal Status Law Passes in Parliament

The Shiite Personal Status Law 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 pertain to marriage, divorce and other family matters such as inheritance. In addition to provisions that prevent women from leaving the house without permission and legalize rape within a marriage, it apparently also limits custody of children to fathers and grandfathers.

There is speculation that President Hamid 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 magazine 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.

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

Sharia law 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 law 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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