How a Reviled Women's Law Went From a Magazine to a Maelstrom

April 17, 2009

Author: Jessica Leeder

Source: The Globe and Mail

The law that exploded Afghan women's rights onto the world stage began in obscurity two years ago, when it was published as a proposal in a magazine for Shia clerics.

From there, it was circulated to the Ministry of Justice, where it began its bureaucratic progress into law.

At that point, few outside the Afghan government were paying attention. But inside the country, news of the legislation raised eyebrows. Months before President Hamid Karzai quietly signed it into law, legal activists in Kabul sounded alarms about its content to international stakeholders, but got nowhere, they say.

"The current provisions of this law support domestic violence and the impunity of its perpetrators," said Zia Moballegh, senior program officer in charge of the family-law project run here by the Canadian-based international-aid and human-rights group Rights and Democracy.

"We even requested that some talk to [hard-line Shia cleric Asef Mohseni, who supports the law] and do what they can, but none of them took it seriously."

In fact, it was only at the summit on Afghanistan in The Hague earlier this month, when the law was brought to the attention of participants by the Finnish Foreign Minister, that the world reaction detonated. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promptly confronted Mr. Karzai with the West's disapproval, setting off a series of reactions and news reports that prompted him to send the law back for review.

The Personal Status Law, among other things, makes compulsory a wife's obligation to have sex with her husband. It also limits the conditions under which Shia women, who are a minority in Afghanistan, can leave the home, and states that women must wear make-up and pretty themselves whenever their partners insist.