In April, a group of brave Afghan women held a public demonstration in Kabul against a new marriage law — a law that would have reintroduced Taliban-era restrictions on women and would have legitimized marital rape.
Their stand and the work of courageous women in parliament, backed by protests from Western governments and human-rights groups, led Afghan President Hamid Karzai to remand the law for further study.
The story hasn’t ended; the review is supposed to be finished by the beginning of June, and no one is certain of the outcome.
On my recent trip to Afghanistan, I visited with some of the demonstrators and with a remarkable woman who led the fight against the law in parliament. They told me the struggle is far from over, but they aren’t about to give in.
Shinkai Karokhail described how she and other parliament members fought back against the law, which clerics drafted for Afghanistan’s minority Shiite community. “This draft was never shared with Afghan women or women parliamentarians,” she told me as we sat in her living room, looking out at a walled garden.
The daughter of a tribal leader, Karokhail has pursued a nontraditional life. She twisted her long, red head scarf as she described her struggle to check the marriage law before it was implemented. “There was no normal procedure,” she recalled. “It was done behind closed doors.”
She and other women leaders finally went to Karzai, who apparently hadn’t read the text of the pending law. He said his advisers had told him nothing was wrong with it. Yet it would have prevented Shiite women from leaving home without “legitimate reasons,” and would have compelled women to have marital sex on demand unless ill.
Although Shiites comprise less than 20 percent of the country’s population, Karokhail knew the law would set a precedent for legislation on family status for the Sunni Muslim majority, and for a draft law on violence against women.
Confronted with the actual text, Karzai “was shocked,” Karokhail said, and reprimanded his justice minister. But she worries about whether the next version will be better.
Karokhail also fears the West may forget its outrage at the Taliban’s treatment of Afghan women. “We (Afghan women) are no longer a priority for the president and the international community,” she fretted.
In the troubled east and south of the country, Taliban are burning girls’ schools and throwing acid in the faces of girl students. Afghan leaders talk about talking to the Taliban, but they “don’t sit with Afghan women and make sure there is no compromise on women’s rights.” However, Karokhail added defiantly, “As far as the Afghan women’s struggle for rights, it is stronger now.”
Indeed, April’s protest by female students, teachers, and housewives was an unprecedented event in a society where many women still wear the burqa and are rarely seen in public. I visited a 12th-grade girls’ class at the Marefat school, in a mainly Shiite district of Kabul, where students turned out for the protest. The girls were jeered and pelted with stones by hundreds of bearded counter-demonstrators, who screamed “Dogs!” and “Slaves of the Christians!”
These young women resembled nuns, in their blue tunics, loose trousers, and enveloping, white head scarfs. But what they said left no doubt they were determined to protect their rights.
“This law regarded women as a thing, to be treated inhumanely,” said a sweet-faced student named Odila. “We regarded that as an insult. My father opposed my demonstrating, but I said this would affect my life, and he finally let me go.” Odila, 20, wants to be a lawyer.
Many of these girls grew up in refugee camps in Iran or Pakistan during the Taliban years and had to catch up on lost education. Some attended secret girls’ schools in Kabul. Despite their struggles, they have learned a lot.
“The people who shouted at us said we weren’t Muslims,” said Reyhana, 17. “But we are Muslim; we protested against specific articles of the law that violate the rights of women.” Razia, 18, added, “If such laws exist in Afghanistan, there won’t be much change in the life of women, even if the Taliban don’t come back.”
This is why the fate of the Shiite marriage law is so important. We should all pay attention to the new version that emerges in June.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.