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Afghan Effort To Boost Protection For Women An Uphill Battle

Afghan President Hamid Karzai appears before the Afghan parliament in Kabul. (file photo)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai appears before the Afghan parliament in Kabul. (file photo)
The rapid withdrawal over the weekend of proposed legislation to expand protections for Afghan women has highlighted obstacles facing elected representatives and others who want to bolster institutional protections for a vulnerable segment of society.

It's a legislative debate that does not necessarily divide along predictable segments. Some women's rights activists have opposed the effort as a hasty move that could boomerang if it's hijacked by conservative forces in the national parliament.

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But it's clear that social and religious hard-liners oppose even the modest legal protections for women on the books now: the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, also known as EVAW.

So it comes as little surprise that they regard the current push for more safeguards as an opportunity to chip away at such laws, which they suggest are an "un-Islamic" intrusion on local and familial authority.

President Hamid Karzai circumvented lawmakers by pushing EVAW through as a presidential decree in 2009, criminalizing and setting out punishments for rape, child marriage, forced marriage, prostitution, forced self-immolation, and other activities that threaten women.

A recent report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) warned that there was "still a long way to go" in implementing the existing law on eliminating violence against Afghan women. (It followed a report from the previous year titled "A Long Way To Go.")

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Some proponents consider the current legislative effort important to seize on a closing window, ushering in stronger protections while international forces are still around to help keep the peace.

The conservative counterarguments were on prominent display before the bill's withdrawal on May 18.

Article Six of the amended EVAW states that victims of violence -- with their consent -- should be provided with shelter or other safe haven.

Qazi Nazeer Ahmad Hanafi, a lawmaker from the western province of Herat, warned grimly of another jihad, saying that "if the safe houses are approved by parliament, you will witness millions of martyrs in this country."

Parliamentarian Abdul Satar Khawasi, from Parwan Province, said, "I am surprised at the president's signing of this law, since it is completely against Islam."

Clause 22 of Article Five of the proposal says that "marrying more than one wife without the observance of Article 86 of the Civil Code shall be deemed as violence against women."

But Mullah Tarakheil, a religious conservative in the National Assembly, says such wording contravenes Shari'a law: "Based on Islamic teaching, men have been allowed to marry four wives, while this law considers only one -- an article against Islamic teaching."

Fawzia Koofi, head of the Women's Affairs Committee of the lower* house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, and a strong supporter of the amendment effort, says the EVAW would provide women with a ray of hope.

Speaking at a press conference in Kabul one day after the withdrawal of the draft from plenary debate, Afghan NGO activist Marzia Yazdan Tanha described the bill as "a sanctuary for Afghan women."

"If the law is not passed by the parliament it will be a strong blow to those who have raised their voices for justice and righteousness," Tanha said. "A failure to approve this law will increase instances of violence against women and trample the hard-won rights they have achieved in the past several years."

*CORRECTED: The previous version of this piece erroneously suggested Fawzia Koofi was in the upper house of parliament.

-- Mustafa Sarwar