Peter Dejong/AP
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai

To Court Shiite Voters, Afghan President Restricts Women’s Rights

April 03, 2009 10:29 AM
by Rachel Balik
Although the Afghan constitution grants women equal rights, a new law for Shiite Muslims allegedly puts severe restraints on women’s freedoms.

“Worse Than During the Taliban"

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 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.

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.

Background: 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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Related Topic: Implementation of Sharia Law in other countries

Muslims all over the world are pressing for the integration of Sharia into the laws of their respective governments. In 2006, a poll conducted by the Telegraph found that 40 percent of British Muslims wanted Sharia law in England. The poll also found that 20 percent of British Muslims felt sympathy for suicide bombers responsible for the July 2005 attack in London. The paper suggested that the data indicated that Muslims felt estranged from British society.

Muslim law is in effect in several Middle Eastern countries. Religious police monitor infractions of Sharia in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In February 2009, Pakistan negotiated with the Taliban and agreed to implement Islamic law in the Northwestern part of the country. The U.S. expressed concern that the agreement was a counterproductive and dangerous concession. Pakistan insisted the rules would differ significantly from the Shia-based laws that the Taliban used to rule Afghanistan prior to 2001. However, the government has been slow to put Sharia into practice, and Taliban clerics are angered by the delay.

Similarly, in March 2009, Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed conceded to rebel demands and agreed to institute Sharia law in Somalia. He met with religious leaders of the militant Muslim groups in the country and in exchange for a two-year ceasefire agreed to implement a modified version of Sharia law.

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