I was scratching my head trying to remember if there was anything on which me and Susan Riley ever agreed. I seem to recall we sort of both said once (years ago) that we didn’t care much about hockey playoffs. I believe that’s about it. Until this morning – her column about that famous Afghan bill that would allow, among other things, men to rape their wives, is one I have a lot of sympathy for.
The truth is that this particular law is the unremarkable outgrowth of an ideology, Islamic fundamentalism, that devalues women and still holds sway in Afghanistan.
The so-called Shia Personal Status Law hasn’t yet been publicly circulated. It would apply to an estimated 10 per cent of the population — a swing bloc of Shia voters that Karzai needs to keep his job.
UN officials who have read the bill say it denies married Shia women the right to refuse sex unless they are ill and prevents them from working, going to school, visiting the doctor, or even leaving their homes without their husbands’ permission. In custody disputes, children would be awarded to fathers or grandfathers. Earlier drafts tried to lower the marriage age for women from 16 to nine but were reportedly deleted after strenuous efforts by Afghan women parliamentarians.
Some argue that, whatever law emerges, we have to respect traditional Afghan values. Would that hold if it were Jews who were being confined to their homes, or blacks prohibited from going to school? Restrictive dress codes, sexist rituals, inequality in the job market: these have been struggles for women in every culture and can only be resolved within those cultures. But forcing unwilling women to have sex, and imprisoning them in their homes constitutes abuse — anywhere.
In pursuit of this emerging gospel of non-interference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been urging talks with “moderate” Taliban. This is an admirably pragmatic, non-imperialistic attempt to accelerate the diplomacy that offers the only resolution to this conflict. But it requires there to be “moderate” Taliban; it rests on the belief that the law Karzai signed is the last gasp of a declining thugocracy, not mainstream opinion in much of rural Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Independent newspaper reports that Taliban elements negotiating privately with Karzai have softened their position on beards and burkas. They are prepared, says the paper, “to commit themselves to refraining from banning girls’ education, beating up taxi drivers for playing Bollywood music, or measuring the length of men’s beards.” Burkas would be “strongly recommended” but not compulsory.
This is hardly a ringing endorsement of equality and is further undermined by reports from the Swat Valley, in northern Pakistan, an area recently ceded to so-called “moderate” Taliban. The dress code is back, girls’ schools have been menaced, there are public floggings and liberals are fleeing.
There is only so much that well-meaning, well-funded, outsiders can do if the dominant culture is irremediably tyrannical. As this realization dawns, public opinion will dictate our next move: out of Afghanistan.