Skip navigation

How a reviled Afghan law on women went from a magazine to a maelstrom

Legal activists in Kabul tried to sound alarms about its content to international stakeholders, but got nowhere

Globe and Mail Update

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — 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.

Mr. Moballegh's group has been working to reform family law in Afghanistan for more than a year to bring it in line with international human-rights standards.

While it is unclear who wrote the signed version of the new law, Mr. Moballegh said a draft of the legislation was first published in a religious magazine for Shia clerics in 2007. It was then circulated to the Ministry of Justice. Since then, the proposed law has been raising eyebrows among politicians and rights activists who have been working to ensure certain amendments would be supported when the law reached parliament.

But they never had the chance to see the fruits of their effort. The law was quietly passed last month by Mr. Karzai, and even though it has since been placed under review – the result of an internal and international uproar – Mr. Moballegh and his colleagues fear that media attention on some particularly outrageous articles will narrow the review and prevent a complete overhaul of the bill.

As it stands, he said, there are many more problematic articles that merit revision, including one that says men must be 18 to marry, and women only 16. “This must be changed,” Mr. Moballegh said, adding that it will foster an increase in child brides.

Another provision, which was successfully amended, dictates custody rights in the case of divorce. It says women will get custody of girls under the age of nine, and boys under the age of seven. Any older and the children belong to their father or grandfather. The original law provided that fathers would gain custody of boys at the age of two and girls at seven.

“The interest of the child is not being considered,” said an exasperated Mr. Moballegh. “In Afghanistan, we have a lack of studies, lack of data to show the impact of domestic violence on society. There is a great cost to the government to heal the damage of domestic violence. If they understood this … they wouldn't adopt this bill.”

Recommend this article? 21 votes

Back to top