Afghan Human Rights Activists Angry at U.S. Indifference

The Shiite Family Law has outraged many because of dictates it places on women.

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 10, 2009 — -- Razia Arooj lives a life she could only have imagined when the Taliban was in power here.

Every morning she walks through the dark hallways of the Afghan Commerce Ministry to her desk on the second floor. For two years she has worked with the United Nations, advising the ministry on trade.

And twice a week she attends political science classes at Kateb University, just about a mile away from the ministry, past the massive mosque paid for by Iran.

She is a Shiite woman and she says she is offended by a new law quietly debated by parliament and passed by President Hamid Karzai that, for the first time, defines the relationships inside a Shiite family.

For her, family is based on mutual respect. And any law that dictates what she must do, as this law does, would be like returning to Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

"It's just making a woman a toy for a man," Arooj says of the new law. "There is no need to force the woman. Husbands should respect their women. Their women will do [what the husbands want]. And vice versa. They will also respect their husbands."

The Shiite Family Law, which applies to less than 20 percent of the population, has sparked international outrage because of the dictates it places on a wife. The law, according to a translation by a Western embassy in Kabul, describes a wife's duties as "obedience, readiness for intercourse, and not leaving the house without the permission of the husband." The law also, according to the same translation, dictates that the wife is "bound to preen for her husband, as and when he desires."

Karzai signed and defended the law, but following the criticism has said that it is being reviewed by the Justice Ministry.

NATO's secretary general went so far as to wonder how countries could defend sending troops to Afghanistan if the government passed a law that "fundamentally violates women's rights and general human rights?" But as part of a new shift toward focusing on al Qaeda and away from nation building, the U.S. has avoided publicly chastising the Afghan government.

Does the U.S. Have a "Moral Responsibility" to Fight the Law?

"It is an outrageous, an outrageous, outrageous law, number one. Number two, we are not in Afghanistan, to make the point, to see to it that we make everything right in Afghanistan," Vice President Joe Biden told CNN this week. "We're there to defeat al Qaeda."

Or, as a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan put it: "We believe that if we help them secure themselves, by training the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, then we enable that government structure to become much more experienced than it has been," said Captain Elizabeth Mathias. "It's a young structure and they're still going through some growing pains."

That response has angered Afghan human rights activists. Dr. Sima Samar, the chairwoman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, argues that the United States has a "moral responsibility" to protect human rights in Afghanistan. And she argues the only way to defeat al Qaeda here and convince Afghans to help in that effort is to guarantee their rights.

"If you don't try to promote respect for human dignity, if the violation of human rights continues," she said, the Taliban could be defeated but it will be replaced "by another group with another name. But a similar violent group. How could you tackle al Qaeda if you don't protect human rights?"

"Who is the one not treating women well?"

Sheikh Asif Mosheni, Afghanistan's leading Shiite cleric, sits in the Iranian-funded Khatamun Nabiyeen mosque complex, fingering his prayer beads under a massive picture of himself.

Mosheni was the main force behind the law, convincing President Karzai it would improve his electoral chances among Shiites ahead of the August election.

Mosheni argued in an interview with ABC News that the West was criticizing because of "misinformation."

He also pointed out that the law guarantees certain rights to the wife, most notably financial stability.

"In the West, no one guarantees that. The wife worries about her own expenses," he said. "Now you tell me. Who is the one not treating women well. Us, or the West?"

Mosheni said Shiites needed their own law, and this was their first chance to implement one since the Sunni-dominated Taliban were overthrown. But many Shiite women spoken to for this article rejected that argument.

In a country where more than three quarters of the women are illiterate and their life expectancy is only 45 years, they said women need to be freed from constraints.

Why Kabul's Shiite Women (and Men) Oppose the Law

In an interview in her residence, Dr. Habiba Surabi, Afghanistan's only female governor, called the law akin to making a woman a "slave." "It's not Islamic," said Sarabi, the governor of Bamiyan, a mostly Shiite province.

Dr. Samar, the human rights commission chair, questioned who would judge whether women were following the law correctly.

"If it is his culture," she said of Mosheni, "he can keep in his house not send it to his neighbor's house."

The law exposes a country coming to terms with its traditional father-dominated families and embracing women's rights as practiced in the Western countries pouring billions into this country.

In the Shiite neighborhood in Kabul where Arooj works and goes to school and where Mosheni works, most men opposed the law.

"When the Taliban was in Afghanistan, at that time, the ladies was so… beat," says 28-year-old Nasrudeen, slamming his fist with emphasis. "They couldn't do anything. It's about sure time they got their freedom."

Women's rights in Afghanistan have been improving, even critics of the law admit. Women hold 89 of parliament's 351 seats, and they now represent nearly a third of the children in schools, up from virtually zero during the Taliban.

That progress can lift Afghanistan, they say, and needs to be continued in order for the next generation of Afghans to reject the anti-education arguments that help fuel the militancy here.

"If one wing of a bird is not working, so how can it fly? The same case with a society. When women is kept in," says Arooj, "the bird cannot fly. The same society cannot progress."