Afghanistan: What are we fighting for?

As New Zealand SAS troops return to combat duty in Afghanistan, President Karzai has slipped through law changes that give Shiite men the right to starve their wives into sexual submission

Pundit readers will remember the row earlier this year when President Hamid Karzai promoted the Shiite Personal Status Law requiring Shiite women to submit to their husbands sexual demands at least once every four nights, restricted their right to leave their homes, and absolved rapists of their crime if they married their victims.

Barack Obama branded it “abhorrent”. Gordon Brown said Britain would “not tolerate it”. Other NATO countries threatened to withdraw their troops. Protesting Afghan women fought with men outside the parliament in Kabul.

Karzai bowed momentarily to the pressure and promised to review the law, and have it rigorously debated in the country’s parliament.

The results of that review have just been exposed by the American charity, Human Rights Watch, in the closing days of Afghanistan’s presidential election campaign.

According to Human Rights Watch, Karzai amended the Shiite Personal Rights Act, without reference to parliament, and quietly signed it into law on July 27, in a move that entirely escaped the notice of the international media - until now. The story's now getting play on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Karzai has made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in return for the support of fundamentalists in the August 20 election,” says the Human Rights Watch Asia director, Brad Adams.

The new law gives a Shiite husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance from his wife, including food, if she refuses to submit to his sexual demands; allows rapists to avoid prosecution by paying blood money to their injured victims; grants guardianship of children exclusively to fathers and grandfathers; and requires women to obtain the permission of their husbands to work.

Its passage will please the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Sheik Muhammed Asif Mohseni, and his supporters who wrote the first version of this abhorrent law.

Mohseni’s pleasure is expected to be reflected in votes from the Shiite Hazaras people – Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic group, who are seen as the probable kingmakers in an election that will see the Pashtun majority’s vote split across the raft of candidates vying for the presidency.

The Shiite fundamentalist victory may dismay people like the commissioner for women’s rights at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Soraya Sobhrang. When the first version of the suppressive law appeared, she told the New York Times, “This opens the way for more discrimination.” So far, there has been no comment from her in the limited coverage given this week to the new version of the suppressive law.

Comment from the Afghan Human Rights Commission following the Human Rights Watch revelations this week has been surprisingly positive.

“The AIHRC regards the amendments in the Shiite Personal Status law as a step forward and welcomes the efforts to make it compatible with the human rights standards and commitments of the Afghan government.”

Human Rights Watch has done the world a service that should have been provided by the mainstream international media. We now wait for the reaction from international leaders who were so outraged at Karzai’s first attempt to secure the Shiite fundamentalist vote.

President Obama, Prime Minister Brown, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the secretary general of NATO Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Australia’s Kevin Rudd, and New Zealand’s John Key can hardly be delighted by Karzai’s shabby, secretive trading of women’s rights for votes as they muster support for increased commitments to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

New Zealand has a number of special reasons to take an interest in this development.

First, we are the core funder of the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission – to the tune of $800,000 a year. On the basis of its timid response to Karzai’s outrageous assault on women’s right, we are surely entitled to ask if any good purpose is being served by the organization we support.

Second, our Defence Force Provincial Reconstruction Team is based in Bamyan province, part of the homeland of the Shiite Hazaras who follow the leadership of Ayatollah Mohseni. The provincial governor of Bamyan is a woman, Dr Habiba Sarabi, but she was also appointed to her position by President Karzai. There have been no reports of her views on either the first or the latest version of laws affecting the status of Shiite women.

In June last year, the New Zealand government pledged to provide $21 million over the next three years for development assistance focused on human rights, education, rural development, and capacity building – primarily in Bamyan. Again, we are entitled to know what Governor Sarabi thinks, or proposes to do, to defend the human rights of other Shiite women.

Finally, New Zealanders are also entitled to know if our own political leaders are going to turn a blind eye to the appalling action that Karzai and his cronies have taken as our troops return to combat in Afghanistan. What are we fighting for?