A new Personal Status Law designed to govern family relations in the Afghan Shi’a community is being widely assailed as subjecting married women to sexual slavery at the hands of their husbands. The law specifies that married men have a right to sexual activity with their wives at least once every four days and that women may not leave their homes on any occasion without the explicit permission of their husbands.
A copy of the draft bill, seen by AFP, said: “It is the responsibility of the wife to prepare for sexual satisfaction of her husband and not leave the house without permission, unless there is the need or difficulty.”
Critics interpreted this as making it illegal for a woman to refuse her husband sex and only in an emergency leave the house without permission.
Hamid Karzai, who signed the law, says his government will review its provisions, and Canada has said it expects the law will be changed. Canadian government ministers have said they expect Afghanistan will not implement any of the provisions of the law that might permit martial rape or would violate international laws prohibiting the mistreatment of women.
Clearly a violation of international legal obligations to eliminate mistreatment of women and certainly to use the powers of the state to prevent rape, not to enable or condone it, the law has led to a global outcry against the government of embattled pres. Hamid Karzai. Karzai has been seen as being increasingly weak, both against the Taliban and in terms of his commitment to real democratization of the central Asian country.
The law’s apparently radical departure from anything resembling basic morality in the treatment of one’s spouse, with no clear foundation of any kind in religious scripture, doctrine or even modern radical preaching, appears to indicate an extreme weakness of the Karzai government in the face of an escalating insurgency. It could be part of a dubious strategy to reduce the attractions of insurgency by coddling potentially violent members of Afghan society.
Whether it is a calculation that such a law could have the effect of distracting troubled individuals or communities from the insurgency, or whether owing to a willingness to do the bidding of morally and intellectually bankrupt fundamentalists, the law has the potential to turn married women into sex slaves. Such an eventuality could further destabilize civil society and set back the goal of stable civic participation by generations.
Karzai himself has further damaged his legitimacy as head of state by defending the law. As the Washington Post reports:
Karzai defended the law at a news conference Saturday, saying he had seen nothing in it that justified international concerns and suggesting that Western critics had misinterpreted the contents. However, he said he would have his justice minister review the law “very carefully” to make sure it does not contradict the Afghan constitution.
“I have studied the law. . . . What I saw did not reflect what has been said in the Western media,” Karzai told reporters in his palace. Reading from one section, he said, “a woman may leave home for legitimate purposes . . . it does not say she is not allowed to go out.”
The clear meaning of the law is that women are only to go out with their husband’s approval. This is an absolute deprivation of their sovereignty as individual members of society, which is underscored in the law’s mandating that they “prepare for” the obligation to regularly satisfy their husbands’ sexual urges, at least once every four days.
Karzai says he will “review” the law to make sure it does not “contradict” the Afghan constitution, but the law has already established the extreme delegitimacy of his government, making it comparable in its treatment of women to the laws of the Taliban regime. Under Karzai’s weak leadership of a government pervaded by corruption at all levels, women have been forced back into burqas, off of the streets, out of schools and away from any public life.
One of the most fundamental problems in Afghanistan’s flirtation with democracy has been the persistence of the authoritarian structures —chronic warlordism, violent sectarianism and extreme violence against women by radical groups— that have relegated the nation to a state of chronic ungovernment. Karzai’s Personal Status Law officially institutes the right of men to exercise radical authoritarian power over their closest human companions, making the law a sweeping renunciation of everything democratic civil society is supposed to honor.