Cover Story

Afghanistan Women Standing Strong   by Lauryn Oates
Afghanistan Women Standing Strong

In July, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Justice announced several revisions to the now infamous Shia Personal Status Law. The law, signed by President Hamid Karzai in April, contains 249 articles regulating marriage and family life for the country’s Shia minority, who account for an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the population.

Many of the articles violate women’s rights. Among them are provisions that require Shia women to seek their husbands’ permission before leaving home, force them to submit to their husbands’ demands for sex, and discourage them from working outside the home. The law drew condemnation from the Afghan women’s movement as well as from
Western leaders for its Taliban-like overtones.
 

Afghan women’s organizations and other Afghan civil society groups called for changes to the law, which they say violates Article 22 of the country’s constitution. The article guarantees that men and women are equal before the law and expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.
 

Afghanistan is also a party to the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which critics argue makes the new law moot.

Opponents to the law deplored not only its content, but also the process by which it became a law. There were numerous irregularities in the legislative process, which critics suggest were arranged at the behest of Sheikh Mohammad Asif Mohseni, the Iran-backed Shia cleric who initiated the law.
 

They charge that Mohseni traded political favours to ensure the law was pushed through Parliament without a full and proper debate.

Shinkai Kharokhail, a Member of Parliament representing
Kabul, was one of the first to criticize the irregularities, long
before the international media and diplomatic community in
Kabul took up the cause. She accused Karzai of pandering to
Mohseni, a Shia religious conservative, in order to win his
camp’s support in the August election.


“People were emotionally blackmailed or pressured from
the top that this law should be granted to them,” she said.
“They were saying things like, ‘They deserve that because
they are a minority.’ ‘It’s the first time they are getting their
law.’ ‘No one has the right to interfere.’ ‘Show your unity.’”

harokhail was blocked in her attempts to sit in on meetings
of the main committee tasked with reviewing the bill.
She even had difficulty obtaining a copy of the bill, which
had been distributed only to male Shia parliamentarians.
While she was initially a lone voice in speaking out against
the bill, Kharokhail was gradually joined by other men and
women MPs who supported her call for the bill to be
reformed and for a proper parliamentary debate. The MPs,
working with civil society groups, went to work carrying out
their own review of the law.

“We studied it and finally we found that the people who
drafted this bill relied on the most extremist interpretations,”
she explained, stressing that there is a range of jurisprudence
sources available in Shiism.

Members of the Shia community also mobilized against
the law before and after its signing by President Karzai. The
majority of Shias in Afghanistan are of Hazara ethnicity,
unlike the law’s architect, Mohseni, a Shia from Kandahar
who is of Persian descent. Hazaras are known for their progressive
views on women’s rights as well as for embracing
social development and education. Many resented what they
saw as Mohseni seeking to gain more influence among Hazara
Shias while propagating a more conservative brand of
Islam. His ownership of a vast mosque complex in Kabul,
which includes a madrassah, a university, television and radio
station, has also been criticized. Many believe these institutions
to be funded by the Iranian government, something
Mohseni denies.

The Kateb Institute of Higher Education, a new university
in Kabul founded by a group of progressive Shia scholars
in 2007, was one group that actively mobilized to reform the
law when it was still in Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament,
the Wolesi Jirga. In partnership with the Afghan
Independent Human Rights Commission, the faculty organized
a three-day seminar and invited Afghan and Iranian
religious scholars to make recommendations on ways to
bring the law into conformity with international human
rights conventions, while also being consistent with Shia
jurisprudence. While they succeeded in getting several of
their recommendations into the version of the law Parliament
signed off on, the vast majority of their reforms were
rejected. The scholars pointed out that the original draft was
far worse than what the international media saw.
“The code had a lot of defects,” explains Gholam Haydar
Allama, the dean of Kateb’s law school. Originally, it had a
minimum marriage age for girls of nine. That was raised to
16 years in the revised draft, but they had aimed for 18 years.
They also managed to secure changes to women’s custody
rights and brought several conditions to the articles that
required women to obtain their husbands’ permission to
leave the house, but they were unable to have the articles
removed altogether.

Allama also criticized the law-making procedures surrounding
the Shia Personal Status law. The first problem, he
says, was that the law was drafted by the Shia Mullahs
Council under Mohseni’s leadership and outside any government
office.

“It is illegal that a group of mullahs should write a legal
code. In light of the rule of law, it is the government’s duty
to write laws,” he says.

Shia community, however, came when a group of young Shia
women came together to organize a public demonstration
against the law. The women were not affiliated with any
women’s organizations, but rather came from Shia neighbourhoods
in Kabul and had heard about the law through
friends and relatives. They used their cellphones, email and
paper flyers they distributed in Shia areas of Kabul and to
high schools throughout the city.

Saqena, a student who helped organize the demonstration,
explained the low level of awareness inside the community.

“We discovered that most people do not know anything
about the law,” said Saqena (not her real name). “That was
our first challenge, because we couldn’t ask people to protest
against what they didn’t know.”

They reached out to other women, holding sessions in the
evenings.

“There was a woman in Balchi. She has a carpentry workshop,”
Saqena continued. “There are some women who work
for her and there is a literacy class. We thought it would be
very good if we had workshops there because there are
women from all different backgrounds. There were women
who were in Iran during the war, women who never left
Kabul, women who had just started literacy classes.”

The protest organizers opposed not only the content of the
law, but also Mohseni’s claim that he spoke for them.
“Mohseni had said most women support this law. This was
the main thing that motivated us.We didn’t have any way to
say, ‘No, we don’t support the law.’ That’s why we wanted to
do this,” says Sohaila, another organizer.

On April 15, they took to the streets with painted pieces of
cloth, changing the location at the last minute after learning
that Mohseni announced the location of the demonstration
on his television station and urged students from his madrassah
to hold a counter-demonstration. The women were
determined to hold a peaceful vigil.

“We decided we would not shout—nothing. It was supposed
to be a very quiet demonstration: gathering and
silence—nothing else,” explains Sohaila (a pseudonym).
The protest received extensive coverage in the Western
media, and viewers around the world watched as women were
pelted with stones by Mohseni’s students. Policewomen
joined arms to form a protective barrier around the demonstrators.
The group was not more than 200 strong, but a
much larger group of women, on their way from a Shia
neighbourhood in western Kabul, had been blocked by a
band of Mohseni supporters from joining them.

Later that day, about 40 Mohseni supporters arrived at the
front entrance of a Hazara school in west Kabul founded by
a rival of Mohseni, the pro-democracy activist and leading
Shia intellectual Aziz Royesh, who was a vocal critic of the
Shia law. In the past, Royesh criticized Mohseni’s marriage to
a 14-year-old girl that followed reports that he had allegedly
raped the girl and killed her brother.

The protestors claimed they were there to murder
Royesh, and one attacker was later killed as police
attempted to gain control of the crowd. Royesh responded,
saying; “the night before that attack, the TV station propagated
people to go attack the school and stop their
anti-Islamic activities … saying we were preaching Christianity
and anti-Islamic activities, talking like this,
regarding the school as a centre of prostitution. It was so
irresponsible. But, you know, we did not react against
them. We kept ourselves calm. We tried to reopen the
school two days after the attack. We had an opening ceremony
at the school, with flowers, and we repaired the
damage, the broken glass.”In post-Taliban Afghanistan, taking on fundamentalist forces remains ridden with risk.

Young women like Sohaila and Saqena continue to live with the fallout of their actions
long after the international media stops paying attention. But
they insist it is a necessary strategy.

“Mohseni was saying that all Shia women want this law,
and we needed to show that wasn’t true.We didn’t have a television station, an organization, a school. So this was a tool.

We could send our message out to the public to say, we are
Shia women and we don’t support this,” states Saqena.
While women were not successful at having the law
thrown out, the force of their courage—demonstrating in the
streets, joining other civil society groups to undertake a
review of the law, speaking out publicly—is a clear sign that
Afghan women will continue to be a force to be reckoned
with in post-Taliban Afghanistan.