Afghan Parliament debates chaperones for women

A recent trip by two women parliamentarians without their husbands has offended some.

When Afghan parliamentarians went to London earlier this month to participate in a major donor's conference, it was a milestone of sorts, with a presidency and Parliament working side by side to solve the nation's problems.

But for Al-Hajj Abdul Jabbar Shalgarai, a conservative legislator, the trip was distinctly un-Islamic. He saw the participation of two Afghan women parliamentarians - who traveled without their husbands - as a breach of the law.

So while President Hamid Karzai and his delegation were securing promises of aid, Mr. Shalgarai told his fellow parliamentarians that they were all obliged to follow the Islamic sharia law, which forbids women - including women parliamentarians - from taking long journeys without being accompanied by a male member of the family.

"This country is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the Constitution says that nothing can be done in Afghanistan that is against sharia law," says Shalgarai, recalling his statements in Parliament. "I don't want to pass a new law into the Constitution; we already have a law, and it is in sharia."

It was a debate that was bound to happen in Afghanistan sooner or later, a clash of two different visions of Islamic society, one traditional, the other modern. But for female parliamentarians hoping to improve the lot of women in this conservative Islamic country, the return of sharia rules - even if they are not specifically stated in the Constitution - is a troubling sign indeed. After all, it was this very same sharia principle that the conservative Taliban regime used to prevent women from going to school, to market, and to work.

"This is not just for women in Parliament, this will create a big problem for all women of Afghanistan," says Safiya Sadiqi, a female parliamentarian from the Pashtun-dominated Nangrahar Province.

"We have international donors who emphasize funding on women's development. They won't be happy to see this backward trend," says Sadiqi, who attended the London conference after being nominated by Parliament to go. "It means probably that soon women can't go to school alone, can't go to market alone, can't work alone."

After three days, chaperones needed

Under sharia, the notion of mahram-e sharaii, or male chaperones, allows for women to travel for more than three days if they are accompanied with a male relative. Because mahram-e sharaii has not been introduced as a bill, it is impossible to know just how much parliamentarian support it has. But with an estimated 50 percent of the lower house claiming past experience as fighters in the anti-Soviet jihad, and current affiliation with Islamist parties, it's clear that conservative interpretations of Islamic life have a strong political hold.

"As Muslims, we have a strong book, the Holy Koran, and we believe in the Koran, we don't believe in the Constitution," says Haji Ahmed Fareid, a religious scholar and parliamentarian. "We have given women the right to educate themselves, to take part in government, to participate in political life. But there are special rules."

Haji Fareid says that Westerners pay so much attention to women's rights in Islamic nations, but rarely give Islam credit for the rights it gives to women, such as the guarantee from husbands that they will provide clothes, food, and shelter for their wives, as well as the right of inheritance.

"In some countries, the women work outside the house, and then come home and they have to cook, and wash clothes, and look after the children too," he says. "In Western cultures, women are equal to a pack of chewing gum. You can see their images on a box of soap or a bottle of shampoo. That makes women just a part of business."

Similarly, Shalgarai says the rule of mahram-e sharaii is actually intended as a protection of women.

"If a woman is on a three-day journey, far from home, and she falls sick, who will look after her?" asks Shalgarai. "If someone else's woman is sitting in the same row of seats as you, well, human beings have different drives, including sexual drives. Sometimes these cannot be controlled. This is to save the dignity of women."

Selective application of the rules?

Yet women parliamentarians say that such stringent interpretations of the Koran are not appropriate for a modern Afghanistan.

"Islam is a social religion, it is good, and broad, and it covers everything in our lives," says Sahera Sharif, a female Parliamentarian from Khost. "But unfortunately, when there are rules that affect men and women equally, the men in our society only address these rules toward women."

Zeefunun Safi, another parliamentarian, agrees. "If my husband accepts me, and lets me travel and be a member of parliament, then who are you not to accept me?"

Yet she acknowledges that some women parliamentarians may end up supporting mahram-e sharaii, if it ever is introduced as a bill. "There are lots of women in Parliament against this, but they have to support it, because people will say, 'You are not our representative, get out of Parliament.' "

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