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The Afghan Battle Over A Law To Protect Women

Students in Kabul protest violence against women in Kabul last fall. Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree in 2009 protecting women's rights, but parliament has not passed a law making the decree permanent.
Mohammad Ismail
Students in Kabul protest violence against women in Kabul last fall. Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree in 2009 protecting women's rights, but parliament has not passed a law making the decree permanent.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a decree in 2009 banning violence against women. But the parliament, which is currently on its winter recess, has been unable to pass it and give it permanence as a law.

There's major disagreement on key provisions where Islamic and secular law come into conflict. And activists say the gains made in women's rights since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 are slipping away.

Masooda Karokhi, a female member of parliament, has been pushing to get the proposal through the male-dominated legislature.

Karokhi says it's been a long and difficult battle, and one that Afghanistan's women can't afford to lose. That's why she and some of her colleagues continue to negotiate with religiously conservative members of parliament who oppose the law.

"We have made some changes in the proposed law," she says. "We have increased some punishments, decreased others and made some concessions."

The Afghan Constitution says that all laws must be in compliance with Islamic law, or Sharia. At issue are a range of provisions, such as whether a woman can pursue an education or even leave the house without her husband's permission, and also punishments for men who commit violence against women.

Hossein Balkhi is a member of parliament who says the law is necessary. But, he says, most of the proposed provisions violate Islam and need to be changed. He says Sharia is stricter in many of its punishments than the proposed law.

"In this law, it proposes that if a man commits a sexual assault, he will be sentenced to 16 years jail, while in Islam, that man should be executed," Balkhi says.

However, enforcement of existing laws is inconsistent at best, and very often women who are the victims of sexual assault end up jailed for adultery.

Different Interpretations

One of the more contentious issues is the age of marriage. Balkhi says that the international community is trying to push Western values on marriage. But under Islam, he says, a father decides when his daughter is ready to wed.

That notion doesn't sit well with Shukria Barakzai, the legislator who wrote the constitutional article on women's rights.

Marriage before the age of 16, she says, is a "crime."

Barakzai says the Afghan Supreme Court has ruled that 16 is the minimum age for marriage, and that it shouldn't be a subject of debate.

There are many views about what Islam says about women and their rights, says Enayatullah Balegh, an adviser to the president and a member of Afghanistan's Council of Religious Scholars.

"The interpretation and definition of violence against women is very different from here and the West," he says. He goes on to say that he considers a woman dancing or singing on TV to be "one of the most violent acts against a woman."

Balegh says Sharia already provides clear rules and punishments regarding violence against women, so the proposed law is unnecessary.

"This is a democratic thing being imposed on us," he says.

What makes matters more complicated is that Afghanistan has no clear procedure to evaluate whether proposed laws conform to Sharia.

Balkhi, the legislator, says parliament needs to form a committee of religious scholars to evaluate the provisions of the law and issue a majority decision. Barakzai, who is also a member of parliament, agrees in principle, but worries there are few legitimate Sharia scholars in the legislature.

"If we have religious scholars in the parliament who are interpreting all these religious issues for the benefit of [Afghans], that's different," she says. "Right now, we don't have it."

And that means it's doubtful the legislation will come to a vote anytime soon.

NPR's Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.

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Sean Carberry is NPR's international correspondent based in Kabul. His work can be heard on all of NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.