Something deeper at work: a couple of updates on the Shia Family Law

According to the IHT, Karzai says he’s going to review the law to make sure it does not contravene the Afghan Constitution, but added:

“The Western media have either mistranslated or taken incorrect information and then published it.”

Riiiight. It’s entirely the media’s fault, and the executive bears no responsibility for its silence until now regarding the law.

Karzai also said:

“If there is anything in contradiction with our Constitution or Shariah, or freedoms granted by the Constitution, we will take action in close consultation with the clerics of the country.”

No mention of consulting with female MPs, nevermind female Shia MPs, or human rights activists, or even just ordinary Shia citizens in general. Nope. None at all. And it’s not like these groups have nothing to add.

Ms. [Soraya Rahim] Sobhrang, who has been working on the issue for the last two years, said women’s groups and the human rights commissions had worked with Parliament to introduce amendments but then the law was suddenly pushed through with only three amendments. The bill as originally drawn up by Shiite clerics barred a woman from leaving the house without her husband’s permission, she said. The parliamentary judicial commission amended that provision to say that a woman could leave the house “for a legitimate purpose.”

Mr. Karzai cited that provision in a news conference on Saturday, pointing out that the final version of the law did not ban a woman from leaving her house. But Ms. Sobhrang said even as amended the law contravened the Constitution, which recognizes equal rights for men and women. The term “for a legitimate purpose” was open to interpretation, she added.


Human rights officials consider raising the marriage age a critical step toward ending the common practice of forced marriages and the marriage of young girls.

Another amendment gave women longer custody of young children in the case of divorce. In the original draft, women could have custody of a son until he was 2 years old, and a daughter until she was 7. The amended version raises the ages to 7 for boys and 9 for girls.

Ms. Sobhrang criticized both versions for not taking into account the interests and desires of the children.She said Mr. Karzai had supported women’s rights in the past but seemed to have given that up in recent months.

Some Western officials have speculated that he signed the law to win the support of conservative Shiite clerics in coming presidential elections.

Yes, because the Shia will blindly do as their clerics tell them, those lemming-like Shia. Seems to me like said Western officials either don’t care to scrutinize Karzai’s motives, or are totally clueless about Afghan Shia. Possibly both.

Hamesha adds the following, which is important to keep in mind as the story develops:

the timing of the release of this law to the public and the media, the way the media has lapped it all up and made quick work of a narrative that conveniently ties into the western world’s presence in afghanistan as defenders of women’s rights and democracy, the way the government has presented it, the fog that surrounds its actual contents -all these, and more, smack of something deeper at work. also the way it has been presented as a measure of last resort for a president who has his hands tied over the matter and is only appeasing the feared, oh so traditionalist, and oh SO united shia minority in advance of the next elections -right. as transitionland put it, these folks have bigger worries and in survey after survey of the people of afghanistan by the asia foundation, the attitudes of this particular constituency of the electorate towards democratic and even liberal values and women’s rights stand in stark contrast to what this convenient narrative purports.

that’s right -something deeply sinister at work.

Keep that in mind.

Not seeing the bigger picture on the Shia Family Law

More information is coming out about the Shia Family Law. The UN has the final text. The Associated Press also seems to have at least part of it.

From the New York Times:

April 3, 2009
World Briefing | Asia

Afghanistan: Critics Speak Out on ‘Rape Law’



A new Afghan law makes it legal for men to rape their wives, human rights groups and several Afghan lawmakers said Thursday, accusing President Hamid Karzai of signing the legislation recently to bolster his re-election prospects. Those critics fear the legislation undermines hard-won rights for women enacted after the fall of the Taliban. The law is intended to regulate family life inside Afghanistan’s Shiite population, which makes up about 20 percent of the total Afghan population. It does not affect Sunni Muslims. “Unless the wife is ill,” the law says, “the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.”

The United Nations Development Fund for Women said Thursday that the law “legalizes the rape of a wife by her husband.” Robert Wood, a State Department spokesman, said Thursday that the United States was “very concerned” about the law. “We urge President Karzai to review the law’s legal status to correct provisions of the law that limit or restrict women’s rights,” he said.

I really wish this hadn’t been made into a Rape Issue. Yes, the sanction of spousal rape is implied by the law, according to very reliable sources, but there are other problematic things about the law, such as restrictions on women’s freedom of movement and rights to education, work and access to healthcare. 

We’re three days into the news cylce on this story, and the focus of the story has gone from women’s human rights to RAPE RAPE RAPE! AFGHAN GOVERNMENT WANTS RAPES! CRAZY AFGHANS AT IT AGAIN!

I’m sure the unhappy and unnamed Afghan lawmakers and the UNIFEM spokesperson commented on other stipulations of the law, by the way. But the articles coming out now aren’t adressing much besides the rape angle. 

This is troubling for a number of reasons, but not least of which is the possibility that if the law is changed, its supporters may figure all they have to do to please the international community is remove the clause that says a wife can’t refuse sex with her husband unless she’s ill.

The Fallout

So, to begin with, it seems no one is 100% certain what the controversial Shia Family Law actually says. There’s a lot of speculation, some of it probably well-founded. It’s unclear whether UNAMA has the final text, and apparently no one in the press does. Or maybe they do by now. It’s not clear. The phrase “reportedly” is being thrown around in about half the news stories coming out on this issue.

In any case, Hillary Clinton and a host of other diplomats made it very clear at the Afghanistan summit in the Hague that they’re exceedingly displeased at Karzai’s support for the law.

Take this report from Canadian Press:

Outrage grows over Afghan rape law

OTTAWA — Canada isn’t sacrificing the lives of its soldiers and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan so that men can rape their wives, say angry government and opposition MPs.

There’s growing outrage in Canada and abroad over controversial legislation in Afghanistan that would restrict the rights of minority Shia women, making it illegal for them to refuse sex to their husbands or even leave the house without permission.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said he will use this week’s NATO summit to put “direct” pressure on his Afghan counterparts to abandon the legislation.

“That’s unacceptable – period,” he said Wednesday. “We’re fighting for values that include equality and women’s rights. This sort of legislation won’t fly.”

The proposed Shia family law has cast a shadow over an international conference in Europe on Afghanistan’s future […]

Or this one from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Pressure on Karzai to drop sexist law

Julian Borger in The Hague

April 2, 2009


The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has come under intense pressure to scrap a new law that the United Nations said legalised rape within marriage and severely limited the rights of women.

At a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on Tuesday, Scandinavian foreign ministers challenged him to respond to questions raised over the law.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was reported to have confronted Mr Karzai on the issue in a private meeting.


“This is an area of absolute concern for the United States. My message is very clear. Women’s rights are a central part of the foreign policy of the Obama Administration,” she said […]

From the Globe and Mail:

“If these prove to be true, this will create serious problems for the government of Canada, for the people of Canada,” [ Trade Minister Stockwell Day] said. “The onus is upon the government of Afghanistan to live up to its human-rights responsibilities, absolutely including the rights of women. If there is any wavering on this point … this will create serious difficulties, serious problems for the government of Canada.

A few points:

1) It’s great that women’s rights are being raised as a sincere concern here, and not an afterthought or window-dressing for realpolitik. (I imagine this also has something to do with the many angry emails that have been landing in various foreign ministers’ inboxes over the past 24 hours.)

2) Why doesn’t anyone have the full, final text of this law yet? 24 hours in the news cycle is an eternity, and I can’t fathom why –even if leaking the law was not allowed– that it has (seemingly) not been leaked by someone yet. I mean, seriously, what is going on?

3) That, in the midst of this maelstrom of outrage, the Afghan Government has not released an official statement on this along with the text of the law, leads me to think it’s probably as bad as it’s being reported and there is frantic behind-the-scenes scrambling to do damage control. Government silence usually means either panic or apathy. I’ll wager the former in this case.

4) Via the Sydney Morning Herald:

Mr Karzai signed the law last month. Although the text has not been published, the UN, human rights activists and some Afghan MPs said it included clauses stipulating that women cannot refuse to have sex with their husbands and can only seek work, education or visit the doctor with their husbands’ permission.

That was written a few hours ago. Why wasn’t this brought up a month ago, when Karzai signed the law? Why was this story delayed until the day the summit began in the Hague?  Very weird. Very, very weird.

International aid officials say the law violates UN conventions and the Afghan constitution.

If the law stipulates what we’re being told it does, then yes, it absolutely violates both international human rights law and the Afghan Constitution.

5) What was Karzai THINKING? Did he not believe this would become the aid-endangering shitstorm it has?

6) Moreover, how was this supposed to win Karzai the Shia vote?  That doesn’t make political sense.

Maybe I’m way off base (I don’t think I am, but, then again, I’m not in Afghanistan), but family law is not remotely the biggest issue Shia care about. Given that Shia communities have so far not received an equitable share of reconstruction resources, I would think better infrastructure (say, in West Kabul, or the very poor Bamiyan or Daikundi provinces) and the promise of more say in state affairs would be the way to win over the Shia.

The way the news articles are being worded makes it seem like all it would take to send Shia voters flocking to the polls for Karzai would be some good, old-fashioned misogyny.

Color me skeptical. And confused.

  • **

In the comments on my previous post, Asiyah wrote:

I don’t know about the bill itself but generally, the Meshrano and Wolesi Jirgas have to approve it before it gets to the President. Also, the Ministry of Justice has to review and make sure the law is in line with the Constitution and international treaties signed.

Also, from what I understand, Islamic law comes into play when there is a gap in the national law. Also, the national laws should be in line with Islamic law (this phrase in the Constitution is still debated or ignored, depending on the person).

I plan to discuss the process of law-making in Afghanistan on my-so-far-inert blog

I’m looking forward to Asiyah’s new blog.

Corruption in Afghanistan

In her latest for Forbes, Ann Marlowe demonstrates how not to write about Afghanistan and Afghans, or, really, any country and its people.

Brace yourself.

The first sentence of the article is, “Afghanistan is a ghetto.” Marlowe argues this in the most appalling, condescending terms imaginable, stopping just shy of using the term “savages” to describe Afghans. She paints all Afghans with the same broad, disapproving brush. It’s stunning, really. So, without further delay, some of the most gobsmackingly offensive excerpts:

By and large, Afghans are relentlessly present-oriented, unable to delay gratification, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized and feckless when it comes to responsibilities.

They spend time almost exclusively with relatives, have few affiliations with civil society and mistrust others outside their family groups.

There is little to no privacy in an Afghan family, and little individuation.

The majority of Afghans are illiterate, but even most of those who are educated are oriented to oral rather than written culture.

Religion is practically the only activity that unites Afghans who aren’t blood relatives.

Independent thinking and critical reasoning are not much in evidence.

Very few Afghans seem to have internalized moral codes, even based on religion.

Fewer still are able to stand up to peer pressure and do the right thing when called for.

While Afghans aren’t nearly as violent as Americans on an individual basis, as a group, they have had trouble figuring out ways of working out their differences through discussion rather than warfare.

Let’s see if I can summarize Marlowe: Afghans are impatient, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized, feckless, insular, clannish, distrustful, willfully ignorant, ill-suited to literary culture (Hamesha must have been dropped on his head as a baby, I guess), seemingly incapable of critical reasoning and independent thought (I guess Nasim Fekrat isn’t Afghan, that imposter!), fundamentalist in religious beliefs and practice, immoral, unethical (strange, then, that my boyfriend feels guilty about a  math quiz he cheated on ten years ago), cowardly, and warlike.


I’m not a cultural relativist. If a cultural practice or tradition infringes on fundamental human rights, restricts the development of the individual, or serves to perpetuate inequality (racial, gender, class, caste or otherwise) or injustice of any kind, I believe it should be changed or abandoned altogether. There are bad cultural practices, and bad traditions. However, to argue that there are bad cultures takes us down a dangerous path. Culture is, and has been for a long time, synonymous with nations, groups of people –rather than mutable pattens of behaviour and symbolic structures (which is roughly the actual definition.) If a culture is bad, it’s bad in its entirety (and not just a part, like political culture), and “bad” labels whole populations, individuals cease to exist.

Afghans are not all the things Marlowe claims they are. Certainly some Afghans are some of those things. Some Afghans are even all of those things. But there are many Afghans to whom NONE of those labels apply.

Dexter Filkins gets that. For a recent IHT article on corruption, Filkins and Afghan collaborators Abdul Waheed Wafa and Sangar Rahimi interviewed everyone from former government ministers to truck drivers to better understand the range of (only male?) opinion on the matter. Filkins, Wafa and Rahimi make the important points that; 1) most Afghans disdain corruption (shocking!), 2) understand who is responsible, and 3) don’t sit by passively or approvingly when they can do something to fight it.

The decay of the Afghan government presents Barack Obama with perhaps his most under-appreciated challenge as he tries to reverse the course of the war here. The president-elect may be required to save the Afghan government, not only from the Taliban insurgency – committing thousands of additional American soldiers to do so – but also from itself.

“This government has lost the capacity to govern because a shadow government has taken over,” said Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister. He quit that job in 2004, he said, because the state had been taken over by drug traffickers. “The narco-mafia state is now completely consolidated.”

On the streets here, tales of corruption are as easy to find as kebab stands. Everything seems to be for sale: public offices, access to government services, even a person’s freedom. The examples above – $25,000 to settle a lawsuit, $6,000 to bribe the police, $100,000 to secure a job as a provincial police chief – were offered by people who experienced them directly or witnessed the transaction.

[…] Governments in developing countries are often riddled with corruption. But Afghans say the corruption they see now has no precedent, in either its brazenness or in its scale. Transparency International, a German organization that gauges honesty in government, ranked Afghanistan 117th out of 180 countries in 2005. This year, it fell to 176th.

“Every man in the government is his own king,” said Abdul Ghafar, a truck driver. Ghafar said he routinely paid bribes to the police who threatened to hinder his passage through Kabul, sometimes several in a single day.

[…] Many Afghans, including Ghani, the former finance minister, place responsibility for the collapse of the state on Karzai, who, they say, has failed repeatedly to confront the powerful figures who are behind much of the corruption. In his stint as finance minister, Ghani said, two moments crystallized his disgust and finally prompted him to quit.

The first, Ghani said, was his attempt to impose order on Kabul’s chaotic system of private property rights. The Afghan government had accumulated vast amounts of land during the period of communist rule in the 1970s and 1980s.

And since 2001, the government has given much of it away – often, Ghani said, to shady developers at extremely low prices.

The corruption may be endemic here, but if there is any hope in the future, it would seem to lie in the revulsion of average Afghans like Farani, who, after seven years, is still refusing to pay.

“I won’t do it,” Farani said outside the courthouse. “It’s a matter of principle. Never.”

“But,” he said, “I don’t have my house, either, and I don’t know that I ever will.”

And that’s how it’s done.

More great Afghan MP quotes

This one is from Ramazan Bashardost, of tent-dwelling, corruption-fighting fame:

“There’s not a political decision to fight corruption,” Bashardost said. “That’s the problem. And why not? The officials’ friends, their families, are involved in corruption. A politician here will sell his own mother for $1,000.”

That last line made me laugh out loud.

Here’s a description of Bashardost’s unconventional (to put it mildly) style of politics:

Ramzan Bashardost drives a beat-up black 1991 Suzuki with a cracked windshield and often sleeps in a tent—habits hardly befitting a respected member of parliament. His relatives think he is crazy. But Bashardost, 46, now running for president, said he is making a point against persistent corruption in the Afghan government. He said he has turned down free land and fancy vehicles offered to officials. He even rejected a free couch.

President Elect Barack Obama and Transition

It’s beginning to sink in. Obama won. The long, shameful Bush years will soon be over forever. After eight years of being angry, tired, and perpetually having to explain why the U.S. Government had done the things it had done and why the American people would not rise up to drive their regime from power like so many others had done under truly dire conditions, I know I will hold my head a little higher next time I am abroad.*

The lessons of the last eight years have been painful ones, but some have also been helpful. With news stories that placed “Bush Administration” and “war crimes” and “torture” in the same headlines running seemingly every day, I saw a lot of American expats (myself included) become more humble. I heard less talk about how [insert nationality] was uniquely, perhaps even genetically prone to fits of aggression, easily swayed to violent nationalism, and inclined to play fast and loose with the human rights of Others in times of crisis –with the unspoken implication that Americans were simply not like that at all, heavens no! Yes, there was a lot less of that kind of talk, thanks to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bagram Collection Point, the mercenary-perpetrated crimes in Iraq, the enforced disappearances, and the vulgar, blatant militarism and nationalism on display at every White House press conference and every talking heads show on television.

The process that began on November 4th initiated the closest thing we will have had to a transition –a real transition transition– in a very long time, arguably since the end of the American Civil War, though the more recent transitions in Latin America and Eastern Europe are better, if still far from wholly applicable, comparisons for what faces us. Like all transitional governments, the Obama Administration will be faced with questions of prior regime legacy, if and when and how to deal with human rights violators from the previous regime, rule of law restoration, and (they must not forget) distributive justice.

I’m only now beginning to feel a tingle of excitement. I am sure the Obama Administration will fall far short of the lofty expectations harbored by the Americans who voted it into office and the hundreds of millions around the world that look to it as the best hope for a more just American foreign policy. Yet, cynical as I have become, I cannot help but think, in terms of governance, it can only get better from here, if only slowly, unevenly, and imperfectly.

After all, progress is always uneven and imperfect (see the outcome of Proposition 8 in California), and it is often maddeningly, tragically slow. For too many, it comes too late. Yet, progress is real and achievable.

I will always remember what my mother first said to me when she called me after Obama’s victory was certain: “This could not have happened when I was your age.”

I hope I live to see many days like November 4th, 2008 in the United States of America, and get to tell my own future children and grandchildren the very same thing many times over.

Now, we get to work.

*Metaphorically, of course. If I do find myself in Afghanistan in a few months, I will literally keep my head as low as possible, for obvious reasons.

Oversight? What’s that? (Sorry, it’s been a while.)

I was, in the words of many a Capital Hill douchebag, “cautiously optimistic” when I read this today in the Washington Post.

A massive federal plan to revive the U.S. financial system ran into intense skepticism today on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties questioned whether it would work and demanded protections for taxpayers with tough oversight.

Oversight! Now there’s a role Congress hasn’t taken very seriously in the past seven years. But, if real, this attitude shift is welcome –a bit late, and a bit cynical coming from Republicans– but very, very welcome nonetheless.

For reasons best expressed by Naomi Klein, I am still pretty worried.

The second [phase of the economic shock] comes when the debt crisis currently being created by this bailout becomes the excuse to privatize social security, lower corporate taxes and cut spending on the poor. A President McCain would embrace these policies willingly. A President Obama would come under huge pressure from the think tanks and the corporate media to abandon his campaign promises and embrace austerity and “free-market stimulus.”

So, even if there is strict Congressional oversight of the “bailout” and it’s followed by much greater regulation of Wall Street, it’s still likely that those of us who bear the least responsibility for the crisis in the first place (especially the poor) will ultimately pay most dearly.

Cheery, no?

GOP Wall Street Socialism

So, our always prudent government is bailing out Wall Street as it collapses like a house of cards. My extreme free-marketeer roommate is being strangely silent about this, and prefers to argue with me about whether or not “black privilege” exists (It does not.) Maybe the I should send him Glenn Greenwald’s latest column and see what he thinks.

Greenwald’s take (emphasis mine):

…whatever else is true, the events of the last week are the most momentous events of the Bush era in terms of defining what kind of country we are and how we function — and before this week, the last eight years have been quite momentous, so that is saying a lot. Again, regardless of whether this nationalization/bailout scheme is “necessary” or makes utilitarian sense, it is a crime of the highest order — not a “crime” in the legal sense but in a more meaningful sense.

What is more intrinsically corrupt than allowing people to engage in high-reward/no-risk capitalism — where they reap tens of millions of dollars and more every year while their reckless gambles are paying off only to then have the Government shift their losses to the citizenry at large once their schemes collapse? We’ve retroactively created a win-only system where the wealthiest corporations and their shareholders are free to gamble for as long as they win and then force others who have no upside to pay for their losses. Watching Wall St. erupt with an orgy of celebration on Friday after it became clear the Government (i.e., you) would pay for their disaster was literally nauseating, as the very people who wreaked this havoc are now being rewarded.

More amazingly, they’re free to walk away without having to disgorge their gains; at worst, they’re just “forced” to walk away without any further stake in the gamble. How can these bailouts not at least be categorically conditioned on the disgorgement of ill-gotten gains from those who are responsible? The mere fact that shareholders might lose their stake going forward doesn’t resolve that concern; why should those who so fantastically profited from these schemes they couldn’t support walk away with their gains? This is “redistribution of wealth” and “government takeover of industry” on the grandest scale imaginable — the buzzphrases that have been thrown around for decades to represent all that is evil and bad in the world.

Or, as Mischa put it (in his gchat away message), “All Republicans are Socialists above a hundred million dollars.”

And it’s not just Mischa, apparently the Brazilians are thinking similarly.

Other countries are debating it. The headline in the largest Brazilian newspaper this week was: “Capitalist Socialism??” and articles all week have questioned — with alarm — whether what the U.S. Government did has just radically and permanently altered the world economic system and ushered in some perverse form of “socialism” where industries are nationalized and massive debt imposed on workers in order to protect the wealthiest. If Latin America is shocked at the degree of nationalization and government-mandated transfer of wealth, that is a pretty compelling reflection of how extreme — unprecedented — it all is.

But there’s virtually no discussion of that in America’s dominant media outlets. All one hears is that everything that is happening is necessary to save us all from economic doom.

This last point is important, and very scary when you really reflect on what it means. The near total lack of dissenting voices in Congress and the media is another sign of how ossified democracy has become in the United States. Everything government does is ok, because it’s government doing it.

UPDATE: Ummm, or not.  Sort of? We hope?