Afghan Women Await the Promised Good Times

Although the country's Supreme Court threw out the blasphemy charge, claiming there was no proof that she insulted Islam, Afghanistan's Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazel Shinwari said Samar's statements were irresponsible and he believed she could not hold public office in the future.

Where the Taliban was once an international pariah, today the international community is faced with the tricky position of having to support an administration struggling to unite and share power with various factions, many of whose members have an abysmal track record on women's rights.

Karzai's appointment of Shinwari as chief justice sent alarm bells among many local Afghans who, under the Taliban, suffered a harsh brand of Islamic justice that included public amputations, floggings and executions.

Shinwari, 70, is a Pashtun from eastern Afghanistan who has spent nearly 40 years in exile in Pakistan, where he taught Islamic law at a madrassa, or religious seminary.

In interviews with several news organizations, Shinwari has said he would not support a return to the Taliban's harsh — and some say un-Islamic — justice system, but he has maintained that Sharia law calls for adulterers to be whipped or stoned to death and for murderers to be publicly executed.

Islamic Versus Tribal Law

But many experts warn that it's not Sharia law per se that can seriously affect the status of Afghan women.

"They may of course couch things in the language of Islam," says Farhat Bokhari of the Women's Rights Division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But we hope the implementation of the laws are in keeping with international law, which includes guarantees to freedom of expression."

While stressing that she personally hopes Sharia law is not implemented in Afghanistan, Valentine Moghadam, director of Women's Studies at Illinois State University, notes that Islamic law can sometimes be less repressive than tribal laws, such as the Pashtunwadi, or the traditional code of ethics of the majority Pashtun tribe.

"In many cases, tribal law does not have the sense of justice that Islam brought," she says. "Pashtunwadi belongs to another era — it's highly patriarchal and while there's a certain egalitarianism among men, this is not the case for women."

For the moment, all eyes are turned towards a new constitution, which is expected to be drafted by a special independent commission of the loya jirga.

Extending the Arm of the Law

While several experts say the new constitution is likely to be based on the 1964 Constitution approved under King Zahir Shah's reign, the Karzai administration has been vague about its plans to juggle the imperatives of an Islamic jurisprudence with international standards of human rights.

"Afghans are Muslim and moderate people," Said Tayeb Jawad, a spokesman for Karzai told via e-mail.

"Religious, secular and tribal laws and customs have co-existed in Afghanistan for many years, except for situations where external powers have forced the Afghans to move to [the] extreme left or right. The Taliban misused the name of Islam and Sharia in Afghanistan. We will never return to a Taliban-like regime. Islam is a religion of moderation, love and compassion."

But Moghadam warns that the real problem of Afghan jurisprudence would be extending the laws framed in Kabul to the remote rural areas of the Central Asian nation.

"Even under Zahir Shah, the beneficiaries of legal rights were the small, liberal elite in the cities because the reach of the government under Zahir Shah was limited," she says. "Even at the best of times, the vast majority of Afghan women were outside the reign of the government and were unaffected by legal rights. That's the biggest challenge facing women's rights in Afghanistan."

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