By Zareen Taj
The writer is a women rights/human rights activist, based in the United States. She has B.S in Political Science and Women Studies, and M.S in Women’s Studies.
I am writing this letter to denounce parts of the Family Shia Status Law that was recently signed by President Karzai and is currently under review by the Ministry of Justice in Afghanistan. Parts of this law would adversely affect Hazara women. I am a Hazara and a Shia woman. I fall into all three categories that would be affected. I draw my authority to speak from that fact and as my position as an insider of the Hazara Shia community. Reading the facts and consequences of this law has enraged me over about what is going on in Afghanistan and how the conservatives and extremists have found another way to oppress Hazara women. The west has only focused on the “marital rape” issue, not all the facts and consequences of this law.
This law has 250 restrictions on women. I have been in contact with Hazara women leaders and activists who have denounced this law. So my voice is the voice of all Hazara women in Afghanistan. This law violates the constitution of Afghanistan, which says women have equal rights and can be president. However, if a woman is not allowed to go out from her house, how possibly can she become president? How can she go to court when her rights are violated at home or she is being abused by her husband?
Family Shia Status Law
A part of the current Family Shia Status Law’s stated intention was to regulate marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues for Afghanistan’s Shia population. It should be noted that the country’s Shia population represents approximately twenty five percent of the total population. Of that twenty percent, ninety-five percent are the Hazara ethnic group. Sections of this law adversely affect the movement, rights, welfare and freedom of Hazara women. The most restrictive sections of the law legislates the most intimate and personal family matters: in one section women are forbidden to leave the house without the husband’s permission, he decides what are urgent or legitimate reasons; in another section women must wear makeup when asked by their husbands; in yet another section women are required to have sexual relations whenever the husband wants. There are many more unacceptable and controversial sections, all which conspire to keep the women prisoners in their homes and make them prisoners and slaves of the men. Sections of this law are contrary to the Constitution of Afghanistan. Sections of this law erase the many gains that women have made these several years and the many rights that are enshrined in the constitution. Sections of this law tighten the yoke of oppression around the neck of Hazara women.
The main proponent behind this law is Sheikh Asef Mohseni. He has a dark past history of human rights violations. Mohseni pushed this law to please extremists and to move his political agenda forward. One of the results of this law will be an increasing hostility towards the Hazara community in general and Hazara women in particular.
Background on the Hazara in Afghanistan
The Hazara is a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan, which makes up the third largest ethnic group in present-day Afghanistan. Throughout their history, they have been the most persecuted, marginalized and oppressed ethnic group. There have been many wars and military campaigns to exterminate the Hazaras. Some of these wars and campaigns are: Abdul Rahman’s extermination campaigns in the 1880s and 1890s, which wiped out sixty-two percent of the Hazara population; the Afshar massacre in 1993 (over 1,000 killed); the Mazar-e Sharif massacre in 1998 (over 8,000 killed); Bamian massacres in 1998-99 and 2001; the Yakaolang massacres in 1 999 and 2000. The Taliban have targeted Hazaras for extinction because they considered them to be infidels. Their Mongol characteristics have made them distinct from the other ethnic groups and have caused them to be singled out for persecution. The Hazaras have been fighting for their very existence, rights, and identity for centuries. The history of Hazara has always been a history of suffering, a history of oppression and a history of struggle for existence and survival. This law continues that oppression.
Hazaras place the strongest value on education. Hazara people believe their survival is based on obtaining an education and freedom for women. Because of this value Hazara women have much freedom in their community to get an education, employment and to move freely without restriction from their homes and community in general. This law restricts their mobility and freedom.
Hazara Women Leaders
Within the Hazara community, the freedom, mobility and lack of restrictions have allowed women to participate in all walks of life. As a result, we have too many Hazara women leaders and activists. For instance, the first head of the Women’s Ministry was a Hazara woman; the first head of the Human Rights Commission is a Hazara woman; the first Governor of a province in Afghanistan is a Hazara woman; the first female Mayor in the country is a Hazara woman. They have never received threats from Hazara men because of their position. In 2004, I went to Afghanistan for research and to make a documentary. As a Hazara woman I was welcomed by the Hazara people in Hazarajat. For over two months I never felt threatened. Nobody objected to my research or my crews with cameras. This law will prevent these accomplishments in the future.
Who supports this law?
The supporters of this law come from many interest groups. First, there are those who feel this law represents a form of Shia pride. Now mostly the illiterate and elders of Shia feel this law creates a Shia identity and provides recognition of their Shia religion in Afghanistan, which gives them pride and identity. They support this law because it is a Shia law, without knowing the entire law or the consequences of this law. Second, there are those who feel the law reinforces the classic patriarchal boundaries on women that have been eroding with their new found freedoms. Third, there are those who wish to advance their political agendas under the guise of “Shia Family law”. To challenge a religious law brings immediate condemnation and accusations of blasphemy and infidel. Fourth, there are those who feel that this law will silence any modern, progressive thinking and advancement. People are afraid and intimidated to speak out publicly for fear of all kinds of retribution. This law will silence those individuals.
This specific support by these kinds of people and groups should be viewed as a red flag and a serious warning signal of the rapidly advancing attacks on women’s freedoms. These warning signs represent a backward sliding into previous darkness and a silencing and censorship of those who would speak out in Afghanistan.
Why Karzai signed this law?
I believe that when President Karzai signed this law, he has shown that he is taking this country in the wrong direction and does not support equality and freedom for women. When President Karzai signed this law, he did so in contradiction to Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution. When he signed this law he did so in contradiction to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Afghanistan is a state party. My question is “was President Karzai aware of the law’s contents and consequences? He admitted that he signed this law without reading it. This shows how irresponsible he is toward our country and demonstrates that he just wanted to please the conservative mullahs to get their political support in the upcoming election.
Consequences of the law
The consequences of the law are many. First, it is a step backward for all women in Afghanistan. It is a double step back for Hazara women because they enjoy more freedom than most. Second, it is a threat to women’ s freedom and mobility. Third, it affects all Hazara women who are head of households. Fourth, it negatively affects all women’s rights in divorce, child custody, marriage, and inheritance situations. Fifth, it allows a creeping “Talibanization” of society under the guise of “Shi’a family law. Sixth, it creates a triple oppression for Hazara women (gender, ethnic and religious discrimination). Seventh, it gives more freedom to extremists to oppress women without any restriction.
Finally, this law should be changed because of what it represents at its very core. It devalues women as human beings, patronizes them as if they were children, and continues a sanctioned system of male dominance. It is morally wrong, a stain on the ground of Afghanistan and has caused both outrage and embarrassment for us.
I speak for all Hazara women as I say emphatically and without reservation, we too want the international community to hear our cries, recognize our struggles, and fight to deliver us from the effects of this oppressive law and what it represents. Hazara women want to have the freedom to utilize their talents. We cannot do that with the restrictions of this law. The world should hear our voices as we demand that the government of Afghanistan change this law. HAZARA WOMEN WANT TO MAKE IT EXTREMELY CLEAR, THAT THE PEOPLE WHO DRAFTED THIS LAW DO NOT AND NEVER WILL REPRESENT OUR COMMUNITY AND VALUES!