Afghanistan: A Victory for Women – A Defeat of Democracy?

The Afghan Ministry of Justice has presented a revised version of a new law regulating marital affairs for the country’s Shi’ite minority. Many of its previous medieval provisions have been scrapped. No longer does it prescribe the frequency of sexual activity that Shi’ite women in Afghanistan would have had to observe, thus practically legalizing domestic rape; no longer does it allow men to prevent their wives from leaving the compounds where they live.

This is great news for Afghanistan’s Shi’ite women and for women living under repression, religious or otherwise, more generally. But the process also provides reason for concern.

US-installed Afghan President Karzai had in fact quietly signed the earlier version of the law, apparently hoping that it would win him the support of Shi’ite voters in the forthcoming presidential election in September. With women formally allowed to vote, Karzai did not seem overly concerned that while some Shi’ite men might have found their extended rights to subdue their wives appealing, most Shi’ite women might have retaliated by voting for other candidates.

In fact, at least in theory one could have expected a zero effect of this political move: male votes in favor canceled out by female votes against. This, of course, presumes that Afghan women vote in accordance with their preferences. More realistically, the President’s decision points to the continuing precarity of women in Afghanistan. Most of them illiterate, we must assume that a large percentage follows the political choices of their husbands. The photos depicting Afghan women ridding themselves of their burqas following the US-led invasion may not have been staged; yet they clearly do not represent the dire existence of most women who survived almost three decades of large-scale violence.

Of equal concern is the political dimension of this legislative revision. According to the BBC, Afghan “Justice Minister Sarwar Danesh said the changes had been made following complaints by human-rights groups.” The truth is that is was the international ‘community’ that reacted with outrage to the content of the initial version. US President Obama expressed deep concerns; NATO threatened with serious consequences, and numerous European heads of state intervened personally to prevent the law’s ratification and application.

This political pressure was surely justified on human rights-grounds. At the same time, it has added momentum to the widely held perception among Afghans that democracy is a system of government that opens the door for values and rules alien to what local traditions dictate. One might argue that in times of globalization, global norms and values must inform national laws and codes. Yet the Afghan President’s initial support of the repressive law as well as the angry demonstrations of conservative Shi’ites following the international protest seem to indicate that friction is unavoidable. In this case, Afghanistan’s dependence on international aid clearly overpowered local political deliberation. Put simply, the internationally induced revision of the law is a prime example of external social reengineering against the backdrop of a shallow democracy.

A new law governing family affairs for the Afghanistan’s Sunni majority is also in the making. It will be instructive to observe whose political motives and social values will prevail this time: Afghan or foreign.

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One thought on “Afghanistan: A Victory for Women – A Defeat of Democracy?

  1. Dear Daniel,

    I have been living in Afghanistan for the last eight months and just stumbled across your excellent post on politicophobia – and look forward to exploring the rest of your blog.

    I just have one comment regarding your position on the Shi’ite family law. My relatively limited interactions here and what I have observed – of course sadly restricted by the security rules of my organisation – let me to believe that the law was primarily pushed to win the support of Shi’ite clerics, despite the fact that Shi’ite populations tend to have more liberal views about women’s role than other groups in the country. Where I live Shi’ite women are the only one not wearing the burka. There are also reports that Shi’ite populations favour much more women’s education than other groups, and that while this community has been marginalised in the past, it has made great progress in terms of education and presence in professional jobs and government structures. Provinces like Bamyan and Daikundi have among the highest levels of school enrollment, including for girls and have been topping the charts in terms of university entrance exams too. I am told that the same phenomenon has been happening in Pakistan among Afghan refugee population.

    I also came to believe that the new social norms resulting from three decades of conflict, especially the more conservative ones following the Mujahedin and Taliban periods, have create peer pressure that prevents more secular individuals to express their ideas or adopt a less conservative lifestyle. Of course Afghanistan is too complex to be understood -even a little- in such a short period, and I may be completely wrong but from my limited perspective, I believe that there are many more Afghans who do not see “foreign” values as such a threat to their culture but rather wish for a liberalisation of the political and social spheres in their country.

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