Afghanistan women protest Shia Family Law

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

In Kabul between 100 to 200 women protested the Shia Family Law and were met by a mob of 800 counterdemonstrators who were mainly men and Shia clergy. Many women were prevented from attending the protest by male family members and were denied entry to board buses by public transportation employees.

The Shia Family Law was passed for the 3 to 6 million Shia Muslims who reside in Afghanistan. Under the law, women must not refuse the husband's sexual demands, women must comply to intercourse every four days unless sick, women may not gain employment or receive education without their husband's permission, wives leaving home must do so with male escort or with permission and they must dress up and wear cosmetics according to the husband's desires. Refusal to do any of these would be illegal for the woman and can be enforced — the husband may stop feeding her.

"If a woman says no, the man has the right not to feed her," said Ayatollah Mohammed Asif Mohseni, Shia cleric.

The protest began outside Mohseni's Khatam Al Nabi mosque and School of the Last Protest, and continued 2 miles (3.2 km) onward to parliament where they delivered a petition to repeal the law. Mohseni, a leading Shiite cleric in Afghanistan, was instrumental in implementing the new law.

"This law is against Islam and it's against women. It's against the people of Afghanistan." said Sima Ghani, an organiser for the women's protest, "Women have God-given rights. But these men are claiming those rights in the name of culture. It is against everything God has ever given us."

Women attending Khatam-ul-Nabieen Shia University marched in a separate protest in favour of the Law. The University, which is attached to the Shia mosque, also receives funding from Mohseni.

Counterdemonstrators chanted "Slaves of the Christians", "Down with the Christians. Down with the apostates", "Death to the enemies of Islam!", "We want Islamic law!", "death to America", and "Death to the slaves of the Christians!", and picked up stones and threw them at the women protestors. One man yelled out to the female protestors, "You are a dog! You are not a Shiite woman!" Men shouted “Get out of here, you whores! Get out!” as female protestors were disembarking from a bus.

The Marefat School had windows broken and doors torn down. Teachers were attacked and stoned by counter protestors who believed Aziz Royesh, the headmaster, had assisted the women's protest.

The United Nations has reported that women have received death threats if they defy the new law. Sitara Achakza, a Woman's rights activist and member of Kandahar's provincial council, was murdered at her home on Sunday, April 12 by Taliban gunmen.

Another woman protestor, Masuma Hasani, said "I am concerned about my future with this law. We want our rights. We don't want women to just be used."

"Go home if your mothers and fathers are Muslims. These people will beat you if you stay," yelled out a Shia cleric.

Women carried banners reading "We want dignity in the law" and "Islam is justice". Women who participated in the hazardous and rare protest defied customs; some wore jeans, others uncovered their faces.

"We think those who oppose this law in fact oppose the Koran. This law does not approve rape, it is rather about loyalty of wife to husband and husband to wife. Rape is what you can see in the West, where men don't feel responsibility for their wives and leave them to go with several men." said Nesa Naseri, counterprotestor and a female student of Sharia Studies.

"Whenever a man wants sex, we cannot refuse. It means a woman is a kind of property, to be used by the man in any way that he wants," said Fatima Husseini, 26, a female protestor.

The law has had separate interpretations because at one point during the rally both sides chanted “We want honour and dignity for women", and "Allah Akbar," or God is great.

Politically it has been said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed the legislation as an appeasement to the Shiite religious clerics in the face of the presidential re-elections in August.

The Taliban who ruled Afghanistan for five years ending in 2001 imposed similar laws, when the burqa was imposed for women's wear and women were required to obtain permission from a male relative to exit the house.

Whereas the Afghan Constitution legally upholds sexual equality, and Afghanistan at one time signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it also upholds its constitutional prerogative to place Islamic beliefs ahead of all other practices.

Karzai has asked the Justice Department to review the law, and the legal enforcement of the law shall be placed on hold. Homayun Hamidzada, a spokesman for Karzai, says the law is not legally binding until it is published in the government register which means it can be modified.

Hamidzada said, "We have no doubt that whatever comes out of this process will be consistent with the rights provided for in the Constitution — equality and the protection of women."

"We Afghans don't want a bunch of NATO commanders and foreign ministers telling us what to do," said Mohammed Hussein Jafaari, a cleric.

Mariam Sajadi said "We don't want foreigners interfering in our lives. They are the enemy of Afghanistan."

"We must trust Allah, instead of listening to the Western countries and the European countries who come here to meddle and interfere." said Sayed Sajat of the counter protest.

"Afghan women have raised their voices and they proved this isn't what the international community is imposing on Afghanistan, these are the demands of Afghan women," said Sabrina Saqeb a protest organiser and MP.


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