Karzai's approval of "marital rape" law in Afghanistan leads to international rift

President Karzai has approved a law that critics say condones marital rape, opening a rift in the international community as it debates how best to respond without disrupting Thursday’s presidential election.

The schism emerged when donor countries met to discuss the law after learning it had come into effect late in July despite condemnation of an earlier draft by Western leaders including President Obama and Gordon Brown. Canada and several European countries favour making a strong public protest over the Shia Personal Status Law which, among other things, permits Shia men to refuse to give food to their wives if they do not have sex with them.

But the United States and Britain are now opposed to any strong public protest because they fear that speaking out could disrupt Thursday’s election, according to two sources familiar with the donors’ meeting.

“There was a disagreement over how to respond,” one of the sources said. “The British and Americans were reluctant to speak out.” The controversy exposes the contradictions between Afghanistan’s traditional values and Western efforts to instill democracy and human rights after toppling the Taleban.

It also highlights tensions within the international community between countries which tend to focus on stability and security and those which place a greater emphasis on promoting Western liberal values.

The legislation is meant to govern family law for Afghanistan’s Shia Muslim minority, which makes up about 15 per cent of the population of about 30 million.

Mr Karzai first approved the law earlier this year but was forced to review it after Western leaders and Afghan women’s rights groups protested over provisions that they said were reminiscent of Taleban rule. Mr Obama called the law “abhorrent”.

Mr Karzai said Western concerns about the law were “inappropriate” and may have been based on “misinterpretations”, but promised in April to make changes if it was found to violate the constitution.

Last week it emerged that it had been brought into effect on July 27.

Women’s rights advocates say the amended version does include some improvements, but dismiss most of the changes as window-dressing that does little to address their main concerns.

Dr Frozan Fana, one of two women candidates in the presidential election, accused Mr Karzai of pushing through the law in order to win the support of conservative clerics in the election.

“This law is not according to the Afghan constitution,” she told The Times. “I’m going to request the donor countries to take action over this.”

Fatemeh Hosseini, an Afghan women’s rights activist, said Mr Karzai had been stuck between the two sides of the debate, but in the end had given in to conservative clerics.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Mr Karzai of making an “unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out” in return for the support of fundamentalists. Brad Adams, its Asia director, said: “These kinds of barbaric laws were supposed to have been relegated to the past with the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001, yet Karzai has revived them and given them his official stamp of approval.”

The new draft of the law grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work, according to HRW. It also in effect enables a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying ‘blood money’, HRW says.

There are several different translations of the law being circulated. But the amended version is understood to have removed an article stipulating that a man has the right to demand sex from his wife, or wives, a certain number of times a week.

It is also believed to have changed the wording of the article that allows a man to deny his wife “maintenance” if she refuses his sexual demands. Instead, it says, he can refuse to maintain her if she does not perform her conjugal duties according to Sharia.

The US Embassy said it was “still reviewing and looking at it closely” and declined to comment on the reported rift in the international community.

An official at the British Embassy said: “There have been welcome improvements to the law, although some Afghan civil society organisations still have concerns — and we still have concerns. We are raising these concerns with the Afghan Government in coordination with the EU and other international partners.”

Denmark, however, issued a considerably firmer response. Per Stig Moller, the Foreign Minister, said he had written to his Afghan counterpart to express his concern. “The publication of the new law in Afghanistan is worrying,” he said. “According to preliminary reports it appears not to have changed enough.”
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