Women made pawns in Afghan election

Women made pawns in Afghan election

There is an air of total uncertainty as Afghanistan prepares to go for a crucial presidential election on Thursday. The country has been wracked by a spate of violence: The suicide attack near the NATO headquarters in Kabul and a rocket hitting President Hamid Karzai’s palace — both seen by many as symbols of the foreign hand in Afghan politics.

But the incident that went almost unnoticed was the passage of the highly controversial Personal Law Status bill that became a law in the country. Afghan parliamentarian Fawzia Koofi poignantly summed up Afghan politics against this retrograde law. “In Afghanistan, the sacrifice in the political game is women and children.”

Even as the Afghans were preparing for polls, President Karzai reneged on his promise to review the bill that limits the rights of Shiite women by making it a law. When the bill was introduced in parliament in April many saw it as his final desperate attempt to draw the conservative Shiite clerics and Pashtun radicals on his side.

As the law pleases these conservative groups, this is the shot in the arm that his dwindling support base and candidature would have required from the powerful orthodox vote bank which has traditionally not backed him. For many Karzai used backroom deals to guarantee his re-election and this law provided the pr ovidential carrot.

At mercy of men

Despite heavy international and national criticism and his earlier promise to send the bill to parliament before it was passed Afghanistan’s women’s rights advocates learned the hard way that it had already become an enforceable law that allows police to enforce a wife’s sexual duties and restrict her mobility amongst other things. In its original form the Shiite Personal Status Law was far more insidious as the subtler version allows women to leave their own homes ‘according to local customs,’ leaving the interpretation to law enforcers and husbands.

Karzai is already seen as the front-runner in the election and it is doubtful that this law will change the outcome. If anything, it might strengthen his position with the support of the radicals especially against the possibility of a governor-like post for former Afghan ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that the US administration has envisioned.

The law regulates the actions of women of the Shiite minority, which makes up about 15 per cent of the population. The Shia women of Afghanistan have traditionally also been at the forefront of women’s education and as professionals in several fields including the media and politics. Consequently, they have also over the years borne the brunt of the backlash by traditionalists and the country’s moral police.

Cultural difference and identity have become the strongest argument in defence of the law as it applies only to the Shiite minority of Afghanistan with many radical Shiite clerics demanding Shiite minority specific laws that protect them against the majority Sunnis. But this issue of cultural identity has come at the price of women’s rights and more specifically human rights as controversial provisions in the law have remained.

Child custody rights

Child custody rights remain with male members of the household — fathers and grandfathers; women, before they get married, need permission to work; and a husband can deny his wife food and shelter if she does not meet his sexual needs. Though the parliament still has the ability to rescind the law, given its current make-up — filled as it is with orthodox warlords, themselves accused of war crimes and brutalities against women — it is unlikely that they are going to single out this law for review in order to uphold women’s rights from amidst hundreds of laws that they have the ability to amend.

Ironically, many women see the law as imposing conditions that are little different from their daily experiences and thus view the controversy surrounding it as the West’s attempt to undermine their culture. With the law the increasingly conservative attitudes restricting women from public affairs have also raised real fears of disenfranchisement.

Even as the Afghan constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women the law clearly exposes Afghanistan’s dilemma; a country struggling to balance its patriarchal traditions even as it embraces the ideals of women’s rights as practiced in the western nations that are seen as investing billions into rebuilding the country. Ultimately, how women vote, or whether they vote at all is bound to impact these elections.

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