Why shutting up is the best course of action

My friend and colleague (and former TA!)  Steve makes an excellent point about why the Obama Administration is taking the right approach in its response to the ongoing uprising in Iran:

We can think of the international response to the Iranian revolts in terms of sovereignty and intervention, and in particular, pay attention to how other states recognize the external sovereignty of Iran (following the principle of non-intervention) in relation to the popular legitimacy of the state among the people. Because political actors can construct sovereignty and intervention for their own purposes, both the regime and the opposition justify their actions with relation to the regime and other interaction actors, societies, networks, etc. In doing so, they discursively borrow and reinvent old narrative themes to mobilize enough support to overwhelm their opponents. How Iranian actors and interactional actors construct the socially understood meanings of sovereignty and intervention impacts their mobilization. This is why Obama refrains from forcefully supporting the Iranian opposition because it reinforces the narrative of foreign intervention in Iranian politics, one that specifically refers to United States and its support of the Shah. The expression of overt support to one side from a historically hostile hegemonic state might simply shift the focus of the crisis to new social relationships. Mossavi would be altercast as a collaborator and the regime would ride a nationalist backlash.

The problem is really how we recognize the boundaries of the Iranian nation, and discursively act on that definition to contribute to a desired outcome without our fingerprints on it. Hence, Obama says “If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.” Implicit here is consent of the people, which obligates the government to recognize popular discontent in the form of protest. The inability to do so puts the moral onus on the regime, as it fails to recognize the sovereignty of its own people. We play up our soft stance in the name of non-intervention and sovereignty, but of course made sure Twitter kept running, thereby aiding popular mobilization against the regime. Thus, we define boundaries and take actions across them in reference to a popular sovereignty that has yet to fully materialize. Paradoxically, we can only support the Iranian resistance by not directly aiding it, but only by constituting the conditions in which it can fully emerge.

I would add that we might even want to be a little more quiet about constituting the aforementioned conditions in the future — not that US involvement in things like the Twitter maintenance delay should be denied by the administration, but rather the utmost importance of tact  in this very risky area of public diplomacy.

Our indirect assistance to demonstrators should be quiet and humble (and, in this case, very, very geeky). To paraphrase Jon Stewart’s mocking of Congressional Republicans’ criticism of how Obama has addressed the uprising in Iran — it’s (not) all about us! No prominent Iranian dissident has called for the US to take a stronger approach at this time, and several, including Akbar Ganji, have long argued that any support the US government tries to lend dissidents will only undermine pro-democracy forces in Iran. Even the family members of prominent dissidents arrested during the demonstrations of the past two weeks have emphasized this point.

Bottom line: I’m not braving the batons and bullets of the Basij, and neither are John McCain and the astoundingly hypocritical chorus of right-wing bloggers and pundits  — Iranians are. If we can help them organize by keeping informal channels of communication open as the regime struggles to monopolize information, great, but let’s not publicly pat ourselves on the backs for doing that.

Writing this, I’m chuckling, because Steve would use a cruder term than back-patting.


Not much I can add. Follow @TehranBureau on Twitter for real-time updates. And check out these stunning photos from The Big Picture.


A supporter of defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi shouts slogans during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner by a landslide in Iran's hotly-disputed presidential vote, triggering riots by opposition supporters and furious complaints of cheating from his defeated rivals. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images)

An injured backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi covers his bloodied face during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images) #

An injured backer of Mir Hossein Mousavi covers his bloodied face during riots in Tehran on June 13, 2009. (OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images) #

More Shia Family Law stuff

I have no idea what to title these posts at this point.

Anyway, an expert (to see who, go to the comment thread) wrote the following at Registan.

Just a quick point on this law — it is certainly a bad development from a political point of view, for the reasons enumerated above.

However, purely as a law, it has been caricatured as the ‘marital rape’ law. In fact, the Dari version shows it to be basically pretty middle of the road Shi’a jurisprudence, slightly to the right of Iran, but not egregiously so.

The particular provision that has been mistranslated and misinterpreted as ‘allowing’ marital rape doesn’t do so, legally speaking: article 132 includes the following relevant provisions:
(1) The spouses are obliged to socialize with one another and their parents and family.
(2) The spouses are obliged to cooperate and collaborate for welfare of their families and children.
(3) The spouses must abstain from any actions that would cause the hatred and displeasure of one another; whenever the husband wants his wife to attend to her appearance, the wife is obliged to do so.
(4) The husband is obliged, except during period of travel, to spend the night in one place with his wife at least one night out of four, except when it is harmful to one of the spouses or one of them suffers from a venereal disease. It is the duty of the wife to tend to the husband’s inclination for sexual liaison. The husband is obliged to not postpone intimacy with his wife for more than four months without his wife’s consent.
(5) Whenever a man has more than one wife, he is obliged to spend at least one night out of four in view of section (4). The right of the wife (to intimacy) may, upon her consent, be transferred to the husband and other spouses.
(6) The husband may increase the rights (of intimacy) to more than one night, on the condition that no harm or shame comes to the other spouses.
(7) The wife is obliged to manage and perform those areas of domestic chores that the husband has specified in the marriage contract; otherwise, the wife is not obliged to perform domestic chores.

As you can see, this is not an explicit endorsement of marital rape. From a purely legal point of view, the offending language in section (4) (”It is the duty of the wife to tend to the husband’s inclination for sexual liaison”) has to be read in light of section (3)’s injunction against actions that would cause “hatred or displeasure”. And under basic jurisprudential principles the article could be interpreted so as to prohibit rape, in fact.

No question that the language about the wife’s obligation to satisfy the husband’s sexual needs is highly problematic. But the point of article 132 is to govern the mutual responsibilities of spouses (including up to four wives) in the sexual sphere.

No question this is absolutely discriminatory toward women, and deeply troubling, given Afghanistan’s current political climate, as well as the absence of a functioning judiciary, and the absolute lack of state protection for women, in particular Shi’a women.

But it is not a ‘marital rape’ law, and by casting it thus, the Western media and policy makers have actually given a sop to Mohseni and others who make a living by positioning themselves as defenders of Islam against Western interlopers. The law should never have been rammed though, but the Wolesi and Mishrano Jirgas’ foolishness, and Karzai’s weakness, are other issues.

Now, Afghan civil society and their international supporters should focus on ameliorating some of the political damage, and not try to engage in a debate on Shi’a jurisprudence.

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.