Afghanistan: Contentious marriage law modified

Afghanistan's government has revised a law that stirred an international outcry because it essentially legalized marital rape.
The new version no longer requires a woman submit to sex with her husband, only that she do certain housework. The changes, which parliament is expected to approve, likely reflect a calculation by President Hamid Karzai that his reputation as a reformer is more important than support from conservative Shiites who favored the original bill. Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said the revisions show that Karzai has followed through on a pledge made in April to expunge the offensive parts of the marriage law, which applies only to minority Shiite Muslims.
Women's rights activists welcomed the new draft, but many said the government had not done enough and that little will change in day-to-day life.

"We need a change in customs, and this is just on paper. What is being practiced every day, in Kabul even, is worse than the laws," said Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker and vocal women's rights advocate.

Karzai signed the original law in March but quickly suspended enforcement after governments around the world condemned the legislation. Critics saw it as a return to Taliban-style oppression of women by a government that was supposed to be promoting democracy and human rights. President Barack Obama labeled the original version "abhorrent."

Even within this conservative Muslim society, a host of academics and politicians signed a petition condemning the law, and women took to the streets of Kabul in protest.

Karzai said that he had not read the law before signing it and that his Cabinet advisers had signed off on a version that did not include articles requiring a woman to ask her husband's permission to leave the house. But those articles ended up in the draft he signed, as was a provision ordering wives to offer sex with their spouses at least every four days unless they were ill.

After the firestorm of criticism, Karzai ordered a Justice Ministry review, which took three months.

Two of the most controversial articles have been drastically changed, according to documents supplied by the ministry. An article that previously required a wife to submit to regular sex now requires her only to perform whatever household chores the couple agreed to when they married. The revised version makes no attempt to regulate sexual relations between husband and wife.

A section that required a wife to ask her husband's permission to leave the house has also been deleted. In its place, an article states that a woman is the "owner of her property and can use her property without the permission of her husband."

Shiites comprise 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan's 30 million people; the majority are Sunni Muslim. Nonetheless, the measure caused an uproar because it harkened back to Taliban-era rules. The Taliban, Sunnis who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, required women to wear all-covering burqas and banned them from leaving home without a male relative.

Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, said the amendments would "ensure Afghanistan meets international obligations."

"The United Nations has had concerns about parts of the law that do not conform with international law, particularly in regard to the rights of women," Siddique said.

Although many Afghans criticized the law, their voices were often overwhelmed by conservative Shiites who said the legislation protected their right to live according to their interpretation of Islam's holy book, the Quran. At a protest in April, supporters of the law shouted insults and threw rocks at women who opposed it.

Before Karzai came out strongly against the law, his critics said he might be using the legislation to court Shiites in the Aug. 20 presidential election. Approval of the changes before the vote would put Karzai on the side of the reformers.

Even so, Roshan Sirran, who heads a group that informs women of their rights under Islamic and international law, said the new version still relies too much on agreements entered into at the time of marriage. Such contracts aren't a traditional part of an engagement or marriage in Afghanistan, she said.

"This is not implementable in our society. There will be no agreement on any conditions at the time of the marriage between husband and wife," Sirran said. Others said men have too much freedom to marry second wives without consulting their first wives. Islam allows men up to four wives.

Parliament is in recess and will not convene again for nearly two weeks. Hamidzada, the presidential spokesman, said Afghanistan's influential clerics council and civil society leaders will also have to sign off on the revised law.

Even with the changes, some activists said not much will change in women's lives.

"Still there are forced marriages and child marriages and the lack of access to property, and the lack of access to divorce," Barakzai said. "Still a girl, because she's a girl, can't go to school, in very rich families even."

09 July 2009


Source: AP