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Mayor Karzai signs pro-rape bill in Afghanistan, scapegoats the Shi’a

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

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.



  • http://www.tariqnelson.com Tariq Nelson

    That is THEIR law and is according to THEIR custom. I am as appalled as any Westerner by such a law, but we can not go around imposing our values on the rest of the world. That is THEIR law and there is nothing that we can (or should) do about it.
    What should Obama do? Veto the bill?

  • http://www.islamicate.com islamoyankee

    I am amused that the Hazaras are being taken seriously in this manner. Not because they shouldn’t, but because the only thing most Afghans could agree on was that you killed the Hazaras first. They were the Dalits of Aghanistan, and now their vote is so important that Karzai is willing to ignore civil and religious law to get it.

  • paagle

    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.
    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the Taliban arise out of a combination of instability in Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets and the Pakistani ISI’s desire to control the region – all as filtered through the religious sensibilities of the local populace (perhaps influenced by Saudi-funded madrassas)? The US is often accused of creating al Queda, which may have some truth to it, but I can’t see how we’re responsible for the Taliban. Even the less strong “led to” rather than “created” is a stretch. The US wanted to stick it to the Soviets, so used the uprising that was already there. Given the religious nature of Afghanistan and the NWFP, could that resistance have been anything other than Islamic? Lots of foreign jihadis were recruited as well, but again it seems like the US was more “riding the tiger” than controling events. The Saudis were awfully influential in bringing foreigners in as well. Unlike the US, they stayed behind after the Soviets left. While maybe in retrospect the Pakistanis and Afghans would have been better off with the US, you’ll have a hard time convicing me that they would have accepted US aid the same way they’ve accepted Saudi aid. In fact, as Pakistan goes up in flames I hear lots of complaining from S Asian Muslims that its all America’s fault, but I never hear a word against the Saudi madrassas that directly produce these nutjobs.
    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.
    Why should the US fight for women’s emancipation in a region where it appears the one way to get people to all agree to “A” is for the Americans to assert “B”? Wouldn’t we be doing more harm than good? Even if America was not so widely distrusted, do Muslims anywhere want us to try to affect cultural changes in Muslim countries to our liking? Be careful what you wish for – next thing you know Muslims will be becoming agnostic, women will be playing frisbee with dogs in public parks wearing shorts and t-shirts, and beer will be readily available. You may or may not be cool with that stuff, but I don’t think the people of AfPak would welcome anything that looks like it would even remotely lead there.
    Our involvement in Afghanistan has never been about engendering more liberal cultural values, despite the rhetoric. And it shouldn’t be. The value systems, once one gets more specific than, say,”peace, security and family,” are just too different. I say we live and let live – from a great distance. I’ll agree that the US (usually influenced by US energy corporations) has, by these standards, failed often and dramatically over the years. The solution is not, however, to get involved in Muslim cultural disputes. The solution is to ensure no more 9/11s, then get out. Heck, just get out now and make sure they realize the last 7 years have been a shower of rose petals compared to what happens if we’re attacked again. It’d be better if we could create an honest democracy and a prosperous, grateful populace in our wake, but I don’t see it happening. The US brand if far too damaged, and our values (again, beyond the most general) far too different.

  • Whiskey

    Bush was judged by his failure to prevent Sharia from being implented in Iraq, or parts of it at least.
    Hussein Obama is President. He’s constantly reminding foreigners that he was born a Muslim, raised a Muslim and has many Muslim relatives.
    It appears he is Muslim in sensibility either. He could have stopped this, Karzai is totally dependent on Obama’s goodwill.
    Obama chose not to. What else can you expect from a man who can recite the call to prayer in Arabic from memory in a NYT interview, and has said he’d stand with Muslims against America if it came to that?

  • Shannon Love

    I suppose it would unsporting to point out that the legal concept that a wife could not refuse to have sex with her husband was the universal western stardard until the middle of the 20th century. It’s probably technically still on the books in a lot of places.
    We’re basically looking at a culture that is 50-100 years behind us in social evolution. We shouldn’t find this surprising as they are essential a pre-industrial and even pre-Renaissance culture.
    As much as we would like to forcably drag these people kicking and screaming into the 21st century as we see it, we can’t. Change has to come from the bottom up to be real and lasting.

  • Mark

    “That is THEIR law and is according to THEIR custom. I am as appalled as any Westerner by such a law, but we can not go around imposing our values on the rest of the world. That is THEIR law and there is nothing that we can (or should) do about it.
    What should Obama do? Veto the bill?”
    Nothing we should do about it? So we shouldn’t protest it? We shouldn’t point out that the only reason even the semblance of a democracy exists in Afghanistan is because of United States and allied military might? We should just completely acquiesce, even though the spilling of American blood and the spending of American treasure are the only things enabling Karzai to be in a position to sign this bill in the first place? I am curious, do you similarly believe not a single voice of protest should be raised about the Chinese treatment of those in Tibet (a favorite cause of the left) or the genocide in Darfur, because Sudan has THEIR customs and THEIR laws?
    Whatever happened to never again?
    And it is absolutely amazing to see some commenters here take an “oh we should’t do anything or say anything about this barbarity” attitude or offer up silly rationalizations along the lines of “as much as we would like to forcably [sic] drag these people kicking and screaming into the 21st century as we see it, we can’t. Change has to come from the bottom up to be real and lasting.” Oh, I see, these people are backwards so that means the President of the United States shouldn’t object to rape. What utter nonsense. And I just love the use of the phrase “as we see it”. So rape is a widely accepted practice outside of the United States? So protesting brutal sexual assault is just another example of cultural imperialism? What craven garbage.
    I have a very distinct feeling that the “hey rape is allright, don’t say anything crowd” would be saying something distinctly different if George Bush were in office. Karzai would be hearing the howls of protest all the way from Berkeley and Ann Arbor by now.

  • Your Name

    Please: The Taliban have NOT “retaken most of the country”. Don’t undermine the intelligence of your position by tossing off nuggets like that. Your comment implies the Taliban controls territory and, save for a relatively small, confined mountain region, there is virtually nothing that the Taliban “controls”, and even there we have the strategic initiative, though they retain tactical capability for limited ops. The security situation outside of the Kabul “Green Zone” for a figure like Karzai is bad but the US (largely) and the ANA (coming along) have established credible security by largely confining the scope of the Taliban to the Pak border provinces. The Taliban is as restricted outside, more so actually, of that area as Karzai himself is outside of Kabul.
    The new law is certainly not a positive example of SecState Clinton’s policy matching her rhetoric.

  • grichens

    “As much as we would like to forcably drag these people kicking and screaming into the 21st century as we see it, we can’t. Change has to come from the bottom up to be real and lasting.”
    Exactly. We wouldn’t want to offend the sensibilities of a pressure group that believes it should be OK for a husband to rape his wife. After all, what IS rape, really?

  • plutosdad

    I thought before the Taliban took over that women were pretty free in Afghanistan? They didn’t have to wear coverings and could go to school. At least that’s what was implied in Taliban by Ahmed Rashid.

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