Afghanistan's controversial law emboldens women's rights activists

Hundreds in Kabul staged a rare rally Wednesday, defying counterprotesters' stones and insults.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Afghan Shiite in Kabul women carry a banner that reads "We want a law, but democratic one," during a march Wednesday against a new marriage law that would require women to get their husband's permission before leaving the house and would legitimize marital rape. Some 1,000 Afghans swarmed the demonstration of 300 women, pelting them with small stones as police struggled to keep the two groups apart.

As Fatima Fedayee clutched a banner that read "Equality Is Our Right," an angry man charged toward her and knocked her to the ground. As soon as she picked herself up, another man hurled stones at her. Then a group of men surrounded her, screaming unsavory epithets.

But Ms. Fedayee kept holding the banner, chanting "Islam means equality!" She kept up the rallying cry for more than an hour Wednesday, alongside nearly 300 other women, protesting a law that they say would greatly restrict women's freedoms.

These demonstrators belong to a women's movement that has emerged with unusual boldness in recent weeks to fight the law. Unlike other campaigns around gender issues, this marks one of the few times women have openly confronted the conservative attitudes in this country – and the first time in years they have demanded their rights in a public demonstration. Like Fedayee, many have withstood hostile, even violent, opposition – sometimes from other women.

"We've been silent for all of these years, but we can't tolerate this anymore," Fedayee says.

Law would empower husbands

The law that sparked the outrage – which was passed by both houses of parliament and signed late last month by President Hamid Karzai – regulates the actions of women of the Shiite minority, which makes up about 15 percent of the population. Among the bill's many articles, activists point to a few particularly oppressive statutes: that women should get their husband's permission before leaving the house, and husbands have the right to have sex with their wives whenever they wish.

An outpouring of international criticism has pushed President Karzai to shelve the bill for now and pledge to reconsider any portions of the law that contradict the Afghan constitution, which guarantees equal rights for men and women. The measure also stipulates that no law should contradict Islam – a fact some conservatives use to argue that the law in question can be reconciled with the constitution.

Although the majority of local opposition to the law started with nongovernmental organizations, the movement has spread to students and others. Still, the women were vastly outnumbered by angry demonstrators who favor the law – including hundreds of burqa-clad women, who chanted, "God is great! Long live Islam!" Many of these counterprotesters hurled stones and spat on their rivals.

'Don't make empty promises!'

The women say they are not cowed. In recent weeks they have been planning various actions, including media campaigns and phone calls to legislators. One group formed last week and signed a resolution asking for amendments to the law.

"It is difficult to organize such things in this country, because the conservatives have the power here," says Fatima Hussaini, who participated in Wednesday's protest.

The movement is very decentralized, with no individual or group leading it. At one point during Wednesday's protest a few women rose with loudspeakers and debated on the spot when they should hold the next protest. Later, a parliament official emerged to promise that the law would be reviewed.

"When? Don't make empty promises!" shouted women in the crowd.

"Soon, just give us some time," the official pleaded.

The women demanded to be heard by high-ranking authorities immediately. Finally, the man relented. The women huddled together and nominated some among themselves to enter the Parliament.

Movement draws the young, educated

The women in this new movement are young and educated – most are in high school or university. Activists say that their ranks number in the hundreds, although it is possible that more support their cause in secret. Some are NGO workers, others are journalists, and some are teachers. Many have repatriated from Iran, which is more culturally liberal than Afghanistan. A few of the women involved say they have experience working on gender issues through NGOs, though none had participated in open political activism before.

Some analysts suggest the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, an underground women's group that resisted the Taliban and mujahideen governments of the 1990s, could be helping to organize the demonstrations. They remain underground because of their vigorous advocacy of women's rights, which can be very dangerous here.

Women against women

The biggest challenge the women face may be from other women. "I can say with confidence that most women support this law," says activist Fatima Ahazul. Many say that they have tried in vain to convince friends and relatives to support them.

Afghanistan is widely regarded as one of the world's most conservative societies, and independent-minded women here are under constant threat. Some TV presenters and outspoken women's rights activists have been assassinated in the past. Earlier this week, the Taliban gunned down a government official and gender equality activist, Sitara Achakzai, in the southern city of Kandahar. In general, women cannot leave their homes without permission from their husband or father.

Women who back the law say they see it as imposing conditions little different from their daily experiences, and view the controversy surrounding it as a Western attempt to undermine their culture.

"But such women are mainly housewives and illiterates," argues Ms. Ahazul, the activist. "Only open-minded and well-educated women oppose the law."

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