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Outrage is free —Rafia Zakaria

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rafiazakriaThe West, the Taliban, as well as local tribal structures are all complicit in the denial of equality and dignity to Afghan women and the promotion of a culture of war and violence that permeates both public and family life

On March 31, 2008, the Guardian reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai had signed the Shia Personal Status Bill that made marital rape lawful under Afghan law.

While the final text of the legislation has not yet been released, reports allege that Article 132 of the Bill makes lawful the rape of a wife by her husband. Article 133 of the Bill subjects a woman’s right to work, education, healthcare and other services contingent upon her husband’s permission. Other articles in the Bill deny a woman the right to leave her home without her husband’s permission and tacitly accept child marriages by laying out “mahr” or dower provisions for marriages between children.

The publication of the Guardian report, entitled “Worse than the Taliban”, caused an immediate outcry as nearly every major Western media outlet picked up the story. Leaders gathered in London for the G20 summit were reported to have taken note of the issue, and reports also emerged of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having raised it with President Karzai.

While the rapt concern for Afghan women and the readiness of the Western media to critique the frame that has so far painted the Taliban as the only culprit in the Afghan crisis is to be lauded, it is difficult to digest this outcry without some valid scepticism.

One glaring source of doubt comes from the ease with which the demonisation of President Karzai falls into the latest recipe for rescuing Afghanistan presented by the Obama administration. If the liberation of Afghan women from the Taliban fell easily into the lap of the Bush administration as a convenient argument for the invasion of Afghanistan, it seems Karzai’s implementation of a misogynistic law will just as easily work some political magic for Obama’s plan in Afghanistan.

The purpose of my scepticism is not to justify a misogynistic and unjust piece of legislation, but simply to draw attention to the complex line-up of culprits that have colluded in the subjugation, disenfranchisement and marginalisation of Afghan women.

In this case, Hamid Karzai ratified a law that prioritises group rights, those of the Shia Hazara, over the rights of Afghan women who will now be legally (as well as culturally and socially) construed as belonging to their husbands or male guardians. While Karzai may be the temporary face of this strategy, the modus operandi of empowering local or tribal groups by giving them some form of sovereignty over their members in exchange for fighting against the Taliban is a strategy coined by the US and NATO as a cheap way to achieve their strategic goals.

In other words, the recipe being implemented here by the Afghan president is but one iteration of a larger scheme put in place by Western forces after its much-celebrated success in Iraq, where it was supposedly responsible for quelling a rabid insurgency.

In the murky moral landscape of war which routinely prioritises strategic aims over human rights, and more specifically women’s’ rights, it is daunting indeed to resuscitate a voice for those most brutally silenced. According to UN reports, nearly 92 percent of female Afghan victims of violence are beaten and raped by their husbands, fathers or brothers. More than half are married before the age of 16 and a woman dies every 29 minutes in childbirth. Three decades of war have left behind over a million war widows who have no means of supporting themselves. Only 15 percent of Afghan women are literate and nearly 87 percent believe that they need their husband’s permission to vote.

I cite these statistics to draw attention to the reality that if there is any meagre degree of sincerity in the global commitment to Afghan women, it will take far more than outrage over a law to correct it. This point is especially pertinent because the new US strategy for Afghanistan, with its incipient turn in rhetoric from nation building to security, is going precisely in the other direction.

Simply put, the decades of war that have all but eviscerated the Afghan state make it nearly impossible to implement any of the changes required to truly empower Afghan women. Outrage over a law is both valid and needed, but it must also recognise that the law itself is a symptom of problems created as a result of decades of war and external meddling. If the lives of women in Afghanistan are to change, then Afghan society must change, and it cannot do so while it remains occupied and stricken by poverty.

If there is any substance to the outcry over the passage of this law that so blatantly construes women as the property of men, then commitment must come in the form of resources committed to the rebuilding of the Afghan state by the Afghan people. While distressing, the law in its current state is a reflection of the social and cultural reality of a society where the ravages of war have permeated a regressive and repressive system and where short term strategic aims of winning have consistently strengthened conservative elements in society.

The West, the Taliban, as well as local tribal structures are thus all complicit in the denial of equality and dignity to Afghan women and the promotion of a culture of war and violence that permeates both public and family life.

To truly change the conditions of Afghan women, the Afghan state must be empowered to enforce current standards of gender equality enshrined in the Afghan Constitution. Unless the literacy rate of Afghan women is increased, a functioning state created and actual capacity to enforce principles of gender equality implemented, outcry over one law is essentially meaningless.

The new American strategy for Afghanistan is eerily silent on any of these goals and is focused instead on the dismantling, destruction and destabilisation of terrorist networks. The detritus of weak institutions, war-ravaged families and abused women this leaves behind in Afghanistan is reflected in this law, which shows once again how the women of Afghanistan are paying for the world’s mistakes.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Reproduced by permission of the author and DT\04\04\story_4-4-2009_pg3_3

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