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In an explicit bid to appease hard-line Islamists, Afghanistan’s “president” 1 Hamid Karzai has signed a bill into law that essentially legalizes rape of a woman by her husband:

Critics claim the president helped rush the bill through parliament in a bid to appease Islamic fundamentalists ahead of elections in August.

In a massive blow for women’s rights, the new Shia Family Law negates the need for sexual consent between married couples, tacitly approves child marriage and restricts a woman’s right to leave the home.

The provisions are reminiscent of the hardline Taliban regime, which banned women from leaving their homes without a male relative. But in a sign of Afghanistan’s faltering steps towards gender equality, politicians who opposed it have been threatened.
The most controversial parts of the law deal explicitly with sexual relations. Article 132 requires women to obey their husband’s sexual demands and stipulates that a man can expect to have sex with his wife at least “once every four nights” when travelling, unless they are ill. The law also gives men preferential inheritance rights, easier access to divorce, and priority in court.

A report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, Unifem, warned: “Article 132 legalises the rape of a wife by her husband”

As a bonus, the law is named the “Shia Family Law” even though the bil is not representative of mainstream Shi’a jurisprudence, but rather focused on the extreme attitudes within a distinct ethnic minority:

The law regulates personal matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance and sexual relations among Afghanistan’s minority Shia community. “It’s about votes,” Ms Karokhail added. “Karzai is in a hurry to appease the Shia because the elections are on the way.”

Most of Afghanistan’s Shias are ethnic Hazaras, descended from Genghis Khan’s Mongol army which swept through the entire region around 700 years ago. They are Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic group, and potential kingmakers, because their leaders will likely back a mainstream candidate.

Even the law’s sponsors admit Mr Karzai rushed it through to win their votes. Ustad Mohammad Akbari, a prominent Shia political leader, said: “It’s electioneering. Most of the Hazara people are unhappy with Mr Karzai.”

So in addition to reducing women to the status of Taliban-approved accessories, the bill also manages to stoke sectarian prejudices.

If there’s a silver lining in this, it’s a minor one:

Some female politicians have taken a more pragmatic stance, saying their fight in parliament’s lower house succeeded in improving the law, including raising the original proposed marriage age of girls from nine to 16 and removing completely provisions for temporary marriages.
“It’s not really 100% perfect, but compared to the earlier drafts it’s a huge improvement,” said Shukria Barakzai, an MP. “Before this was passed family issues were decided by customary law, so this is a big improvement.”

That is indeed progress of a sort. But as Megan at Jezebel points out sarcastically, “I’m sure that will be prosecuted with the same alacrity that women are prosecuted for leaving the house or working without the permission of their husbands.” Indeed, in a law like this that is so biased and misogynistic, such provisions can only be considered a fig leaf.

Let’s not mince words. It’s doubtful that President Obama’s administration was unaware of the rape bill. It’s more likely that they are intent on sticking by Karzai and supportive of whatever he needs to do to get re-elected, Secretary Clinton’s rhetoric about elevating women’s rights in foreign policy during her confirmation hearing aside. This kind of ends-justify-the-means foreign policy is essentially realpolitik revisited – the exact kind of short-term “great game” thinking that created the Taliban itself. It’s a disgrace and an embarassment to Obama’s entire Afghanistan policy, and the domestic economic crisis is no excuse for such a craven failure to stand up for the values we purport to uphold.

1 Karzai is sometimes referred to as the “Mayor of Kabul” since the federal government he leads has essentially no authority beyond the safe zone of the country’s capital. The Taliban have retaken most of the country.

UPDATE: We are having a pretty intense debate at Talk Islam about the merits of “imposing our values” on other countries. I take issue with that characterization and the argument by others that we should take an isolationist tack. I’m also not unsympathetic to Daniel Larison’s point here, but I think there’s a principled middle ground between the disasters of outright neoconservative intervention on one hand and paleoconservative isolationism on the other; namely, pragmatic liberal interventionism, which sometimes involves Youtube videos instead of armies. Sometimes we need to call the WOT a WOMBAT, too.

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