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Fiona Hodgson and Glyn Strong: We must not let women's rights be eroded again in Afghanistan

Picture 12 Fiona Hodgson is President of the Conservative Women's Organisation and set up the CWO Muslim Group; Glyn Strong is a journalist who has been nominated for an award for her coverage of Afghanistan. Here they call on us not to sit back and allow women's rights to be eroded again in Aghanistan.

The Personal Status of the Shiites Law, recently approved - then apparently referred for review - by President Hamid Karzai, is a law that oppresses women and flies in the face of human rights norms. Unsurprisingly it has sparked international outrage.

While it would be arrogant to make judgements about the customs and practices of other cultures, there are some basic human rights that are considered universal, and the Afghan Constitution accepts them – which makes the bid to pass this law so incomprehensible.

It is hard for ordinary members of the British public to ascertain, or understand the political nuances of what is happening in Afghan politics, but informed sources say the proposed law has now been referred to the Ministry of Justice where it will be reviewed by a committee of legal experts and scholars during the next two months. Representatives from civil society have apparently requested that a woman should be placed on this drafting team and the MOJ have said “they would aim to do so”.  

This ‘family law’ is one that, if enacted, will give men considerable control over women’s lives. As it stands it forbids Shiite women from leaving their homes (“except for "legitimate purposes”), from working or receiving education without their husband’s permission. It legalises marital rape and has other disadvantageous provisions for women relating to marriage, divorce, child custody, remarriage (in the event of a partner’s death), inheritance (women can only inherit moveable effects), and bankruptcy.

To have just one woman on the MOJ’s review committee is risible and flagrant tokenism. Britain has made pledges to the people of Afghanistan, many relating to gender and freedom of movement. The British Government should be pushing for more information – asking how big the committee is going to be and why more women are not taking part in the exercise.

President Karzai must be applauded for initiating the review; but why, we would like to know, was he prepared to support the law in the first place and allow it to be rushed through the Parliament? It does raise a rather nagging doubt about whether he says one thing to coalition governments while, making contrary agreements behind their backs.

The number of women in senior government and official positions was apparently reduced after the 2005 elections when he came to power, and the number of female Deputy Ministers brought down from 12 to three. There is only one woman member of the Cabinet, the Minister for Women, who has a very small budget and is, apparently, often ignored.

A quota system guarantees women 25% of parliamentary seats, but many Afghans believe they are tolerated only as long as they toe the line. This is borne out by the salutary example of Malalai Joya MP who ignored that warning. She was (and is still) suspended from parliament for criticising her peers, and has survived several assassination attempts.

Is it too cynical to suggest that, with an election approaching in August, the President is stalling for time and wishing to appear sympathetic to the Shiite population of ethnic Hazaras, where he might feel that support for him is shaky?

International protests notwithstanding, there are hopeful moves within Afghanistan. It has been reported that five cabinet ministers, led by Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, joined nearly 200 Afghan officials, including 22 parliamentarians, 68 university professors and 94 representatives of civil society, to sign a “declaration in protest". This warning against Taliban-style restrictions for women has been endorsed by Human Rights Commission chief Sima Samar, among others.

Considering that the new Constitution of Afghanistan of 2004 did guarantee women’s rights and  Afghanistan is a signatory to CEDAW and other human rights treaties, it seems extraordinary that President Karzai could reconcile having contemplated such a law. As Lord Malloch Brown has acknowledged, the rights of women was one of the reasons the U.K. and many in the West went in to Afghanistan and the aim was to help create a society in which human rights are acknowledged and respected, for women as well as for men.

Today the situation for many women and girls in Afghanistan is still dire; raped with impunity, humiliated in marriage and abused by their husbands. They need support. It would shame us all if, during the time this law is being reviewed, we all forgot about it and, through inattention or apathy, let legitimate rights for women in Afghanistan be eroded once again.


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