Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently created a new family law that sanctions rape within marital confines. This law befits the brutal Taliban era, not the democratic Afghanistan that we hoped would be the country’s future.
The law sparked an outcry internationally. At first, Karzai defended the law by saying news media reports have mistranslated it. However, on Saturday he promised that the law would be reviewed, saying that if changes are needed, he will send the bill back to Parliament.
The law severely restricts when women may leave their homes (at first they could leave with only their husband’s permission and, after amendment, they can leave only “for a legitimate purpose”). The law also orders women to submit to their husbands, forbidding them from working or receiving education without permission.
The following restriction concerns circumstances in which women are to have sex with their husbands. According to the law “unless the wife is ill, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.”
What happens if she doesn’t? Does this legalize a husband’s “right” to rape his wife? According to Afghani women parliamentarians and leaders and media the world over, it does just that.
Western officials have speculated that the law was signed to win support of conservative Shiite clerics, a constituency Karzai sorely needs for the upcoming presidential elections. The law applies only to the Shiite minority, approximately 10 percent of the population.
Yet Karzai should not be allowed to get away with selling women’s rights in the name of political expediency. There should be a high price exacted on an international level.
“For a new law in 2009 to target women in this way is extraordinary reprehensible and reminiscent of the decrees made by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
During the reign of the Taliban, child brides and honor killings were a common occurrence. While today they are less frequent, the situation is still dire. Just when we think we have heard it all, new stories emerge that remind us of how dismal life is for Afghan women.
Consider a story coming out of the Bagram military base last month, where the U.S.has set up medical facilities to treat U.S. service people, as well as local Afghans. Sebastian Rich, a photojournalist currently embedded in Afghanistan, reported:
“One of the first calls for this medic was to pick up a 12 or13-year-old girl reportedly suffering from severe dog bites to her stomach. In the Blackhawk, the medic cut off her shirt and removed filthy bandages. No dog bite, but a long ragged gash just above her pubic bone sown up with the type of large diameter string you use to tie up a sack….The little Afghan girl was a rape victim and had been with child, bringing perceived shame to the family. I use the past tense…as her father ordered her older brother to cut open her belly with a rusty razor blade and rip out the fetus.”
The recent disturbing development in Afghanistan actually gives hope about the potential effectiveness of a strong international response against the mistreatment of women. World leaders decried President Karzai’s actions.
In mere days he ordered legal review. If the law is finally overturned, the international community will have learned a valuable lesson: when human rights are treated as a foreign policy issue at the top of the agenda of powerful leaders, results do happen.
Ana Carcani Rold is a Visiting Fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum and the Editor-in-Chief of The Diplomatic Courier.