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Afghan Women Protest Against Discriminatory Law

Protest Against Afghan Family Law (Reuters)
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(Protest and counter-protest on April 15 in Kabul)

More than 200 women, mostly students, held a protest on April 15 in Kabul against a controversial Afghan law that imposes restrictions on Shi'ite women.

They were outnumbered by several hundred counter-protesters, some of whom threw small stones at the law's opponents.

But despite the clashes, women's rights activists describe the protest as a significant step forward in Afghan women's fight for equality.

It was the first public protest against the new law that was approved by the Afghan parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai in March.

The law, strongly criticized by human rights groups and Western countries, introduces restrictions on women including barring them from leaving their homes without the permission of their husbands. It also obliges a wife to submit to her husband's sexual demands whenever he wants.

Women's rights activists have said that it would roll back what little rights Afghan women have gained following the fall of the Taliban.

Karzai reportedly signed the law to win the support of influential Shi'ite clerics in the August presidential election.

But under increasing international pressure, he subsequently ordered the law to be reviewed by the Justice Ministry.

Presidential Pleas

Women's rights activists remain concerned, however, and a number of them are planning to go to the presidential palace on April 18 to ask for an amendment of the law.

Shinkai Karokhil, an Afghan parliamentarian, told RFE/RL that the April 15 protest is a significant act of defiance and courage by Afghan women.

"It was the largest move by women. Not only Shi'ite women but also Sunnis and even Hindu women were there; the protest was held in the name of women. Despite all the security issues Afghan men and women are facing, women [came out]," Karokhil said.

"It's a significant move that shows the opposition to laws that are being drafted unilaterally by some men who want to impose them on women."

Afghan women participating in the April 15 protest said the new law violates their right to freedom and equal rights enshrined in the country's constitution.

One of the protesters, Adele Mohseni, a young Hazara woman, spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan during the protest.
They attacked us and surrounded us; they threw stones at us; some even spit on us

"According to the Article 3 of the constitution, no one can take this right away from us. Some of the gentlemen in the Ulama Council included a few articles in the law based on the 'Tozih Masael' [Ayatollah Khomeini's book of jurisdiction].There was no need to include them in the law. They should be reviewed," Mohseni said.

Mohseni and some 200 other women began their protest in front of a madrasah run by Ayatollah Asef Mohseni, an influential Shi'ite cleric who supports the law and played a key role in drafting it.

Some of the women chanted "We want equality", and "We don't want Taliban laws." Others held banners that said: "Yes, to law. No to reactionism", or "We want a law that respects human dignity."

Counter Protests

They were quickly surrounded by about 1,000 men and women, who accused the protesting women of being the "enemies of Islam" and "infidels."

A woman who supported the law said opponents have not read the new law, which described as based on Islam: "Since now our laws and our government is Islamic and our constitution is based on Islam. We can't say we don't accept this law."

Women's rights defender Soraya Sobrang, who was among the protesters, says some of the counterprotesters used violence against them and police forces had to protect them.

Policewomen form a human chain to protect women demonstrators against counter-protesters
"They attacked us and surrounded us; they threw stones at us; some even spit on us. They insulted us; they even brought some women with them. We had no way out. But finally we made it to the parliament," Sobrang said.

Sobrang, who heads the women's division at Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, told RFE/RL that some of the women protesters had tears of joy when a handful of parliamentarians came to talk to them and express their support for their protest.

"It is a big achievement that finally the voice of women was heard. They demonstrated that even when they are few, there are people who want to listen to their demands," Sobrang said.

She said the protest highlights the fact that the notion of women's rights is slowly starting to take hold in Afghanistan.

Nabila Wafeq, manager for the women's rights division of the German NGO Medica Mondiale, said Afghan women are becoming aware of their rights.

"It is positive that women have now enough courage to come out in the street to make their voice heard and demand their rights. These are forward steps for women," Wafeq said.

Yet Wafeq, Sobrang, and other women's rights activists believe there is still a long way to go for Afghan women to achieve equal rights.

Insecurity and widespread violence against women remain in Afghanistan, and many of problems they're facing are ingrained in the country's deeply patriarchal culture and conservative traditions.

The April 12 killing of women's rights advocate and politician Sitara Achakzai in the Southern Province of Afghanistan is just one example of the kind of threats and intimidation Afghan women face.

Shukria Barekzai, an Afghan legislator, said that achieving equal rights remains a "dream " for Afghan women.

"Maybe Afghan women will be able to reach it in, at best, 20 years, because we need generations that are ready to sacrifice themselves; new values need to be institutionalized," Barekzai said.

"Of course,they should be based on the needs, demands, and acceptance of Afghanistan's public opinion."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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