Afghanistan Women Outraged at Proposed Family Planning Law

Published on
The Guardian/UK

Afghanistan Women Outraged at Proposed Family Planning Law

Janine di Giovanni

Afghan women protest at the proposed new family law (Photograph: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

A few days after the Taliban
were toppled in 2001 I was in Kabul. The city was jubilant and full of
hope for the future, and I remember talking to some laughing teenage
girls in the street. One was excited because she could now go back to
school. Another sang terrible disco songs and showed me dance steps she
had been practising for five years in secret. A third debated whether
to take off her burka. "Is it safe enough yet?" she asked me. "For five
years, I lived inside this prison."

Eight years later I returned, but the Afghanistan
I found was far from jubilant. Despite the money poured into
reconstruction and development, it is one of the five poorest countries
in the world. There is 40% unemployment - nearly 80% in some parts of
the country. A third of children under five are malnourished. Life
expectancy is 43 - and it is one of only three countries in the world
where women die earlier than men.

I arrived to meet women before
the presidential elections next month and to talk about a new law,
which if brought in, could have drastic repercussions for women. The
Shia Family Planning law was signed last March by President Hamid
Karzai in an attempt, many believe, to appease powerful mullahs. The
Afghan constitution allows Shias to have a separate family law from the
Sunni majority based on traditional Shia jurisprudence, and some think
the law is linked to the August elections and the Shia electorate who
would have to abide by it (they could form up to 20% of the electorate).

proposed law led to furious protests from women's groups. It sanctioned
marital rape and brought back Taliban-era restrictions on women by
outlining when a woman could leave her house and the circumstances in
which she has to have sex with her husband; Shia woman would be allowed
to leave home alone "for a legitimate purpose" only which the law does
not define, and could refuse sex with their husbands only when ill or

Following international outrage, Karzai backtracked
and said the law would be reviewed. This month it was amended and
re-signed by the president, but has not yet been ratified by
parliament. Human rights groups say it is unclear how much the
amendments have done to improve the law. And the law has already
achieved its aim - instilling fear and insecurity among an already
traumatised female population.

Soraya Sobhrang, a human rights
activist I meet in her Kabul office, says, "The law will affect all
women if it goes through. It opens the door for other repressive laws
to be passed, for Sunni Muslims as well as Shia." A young doctor
friend, Najeeb Shawal, says he is seeing more female patients who were
depressed since news of the law emerged. "They have the kind of
hopelessness that comes with knowing your life is incredibly repressed.
And might become more so."

On Mothers' Day, I had sat with Seema
Ghani in her home as she blew out candles on a small walnut cake. Her
seven adopted children surrounded her - six girls and a boy - dancing,
practising judo and lighting sparklers. "Dear Mother," Seema read above
the din from a card her children made. "We hope you are happy! Love
from your children."

Seema is 41, and a single mother. Born in
Kabul, the daughter of a high-ranking army officer, she moved to London
with her family during the Russian occupation. When the Taliban fell,
she decided to return home. "I wanted to do something for my country,"
she says. She worked for the Ministry of Finance setting up budgets;
and ran a boutique hotel. Now she is a poet, management consultant, and
runs her own childrens' charity. A straightforward woman who gets what
she wants, Seema is a rarity in Afghanistan. When she did not find the
man of her dreams she adopted. "Because of the children, I am happy,"
she says. "But the situation here for women is so tough. There are
times when I have been severely depressed. And I have resources. What
is it like for women who don't have that?"

I first met Seema on
the day President Karzai was in America, backtracking on TV about the
Shia law. Her burst of colourful clothing - a purple kaftan, skinny
jeans and high heels - was almost defiant in a city where women still
scurry around in burkas. "I'm not a feminist or an activist either,"
she says, ordering green tea. "But this law, and what is happening now
in Afghanistan, leave me little choice." She has been trying, on a
grassroots level, to instill awareness, to raise a list of women who
could enter the political arena. But in a population of illiterate and
repressed women, it is not easy. "We don't want this law," she says
quietly. "It gets into our bedrooms."

Karzai's initial
(ridiculous) defence was that he had not read the law before signing it
the first time. Most women here are cynical of his about-turn. "It's an
election year," Seema says. Business developer Meena Sherzoy, 49, whom
I meet a few days later, says, "What is he supposed to say to the west?
It makes him look like a radical fundamentalist. "

To see the
women who will be worst affected by this law, I drove for 10 hours
through rural Afghanistan to Bamiyan. The road to this, the least
developed province, is unpaved, checkpointed and blighted by bandits
and the Taliban. We pass miles of country where there is nothing but
the vast earth and sky, mud houses, and everywhere, women - out working
in fields, pregnant, holding the hands of children or walking in the
rain. Most of the houses have no electricity and no running water. I
don't see many schools or clinics. But it does have the only female
governor Afghanistan has seen since 2005.

Bamiyan is the home of
the Shia Hazara, the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. I am
surprised by the "city's" remoteness because there has been a huge
outcry here from the women over the law: demonstrations, protests on
the radio, grass roots organisations very quickly coming together. I
meet one of the protest leaders in a small restaurant overlooking the
holes in the mountain left when the Taliban blew up the ancient Buddha
statues there in 2001. Batool Mohammadi is 27, black-robed, and heavily
pregnant. "The law does not fit with humanitarian law," she says.
Batool, a Hazara, comes from the generation of Afghan women born after
the Soviet invasion and raised during the Taliban era. She has only
known war, conflict and repression. The small window of triumph after
the fall of the Taliban - who brutally repressed the Hazaras - has
given her a taste of freedom and she is not ready to give it up. "In an
area as traditional as Bamiyan, one of the major problems with this law
is that it will stop the trend towards modernisation." As Batool
leaves, she says that when her baby is born in June, she wants him or
her to enter a world moving towards equality, not repression.

governor, Habiba Sarabi, is the former Minister of Women and as a Shia
will have to obey the law if it is passed. She meets us in her sparse
office, a grim, Soviet-style building set on a windswept plain. There
are plates of nuts and fruits and the governor, looking exhausted,
nibbles dried apricot. At 53, Sarabi is no-nonsense. She is a chemist
by trade and speaks good English. The daughter of an illiterate mother
who encouraged her daughter to read and write, she tells me when she
was young she was mocked as she walked to school alone. Having
struggled so hard it was particularly hard to see her own daughter, now
24, denied education under the Taliban. The family escaped to Pakistan
and Sarabi worked on human rights and women's projects.

On the
new law, she tries to be diplomatic, but I can tell she is concerned:
"Fortunately, women raised their voice." She is confident (perhaps
overly so) that the law will not go through. But later, at her
residence, when she curls her stockinged feet under her, she admits the
wider crisis. Bamiyan is one of the few success stories in Afghanistan:
it is poppy-free, the government functions well, and as she points out,
"It is the safest place in Afghanistan. The rule of law is important
here." She has improved the education and health services (instigating
midwife programmes, for example, in a province that has one major
hospital). But can this last? If, following elections, Karzai succumbs
to the mullahs (who exercise huge political power in Bamiyan and the
rest of the country), for how long will it be safe for women? Even
Sarabi finally admitted that if the law is ratified, it would affect
her too.

Women who have managed to cross gender boundaries seem
in a state of shock over the law. Jamila Barekzai is a police officer
whose female colleague was killed by the Taliban last year in Kandahar
for daring to do a mans' job. When I go to meet her at the Central
Afghan Police Headquarters on the edge of Kabul, next to one of the
biggest Shia mosques in the city, she is wearing her olive uniform and
heavy black eyeliner. She was transferred from Kandahar last year to
Kabul when she thought she would be killed too. She takes out her
mobile phone and plays a recording of an unnamed Taliban telling her to
stop working, "or you will be taught the lesson we taught your friend".
She says she was mainly frightened for her children and touches the gun
at her hip.

Her face darkens when she mentions the new law. "The
biggest problem facing women today in Afghanistan, aside from
illiteracy, is the lack of support," she says. "It is always the
intention of men to keep women in their cages. To keep women down." As
I leave she adds, "women are strong here", but she does not sound

Jamila's role, advising other policewomen on gender
issues, is not heavy field work - and I wonder if the government uses
her as a fig leaf. I wonder the same when I meet a female general in
the Ministry of Defence in Kabul, Khatol Mohammedzai. She is heavily
made up for our meeting. A parachutist, she says she is used by the
Afghan government during parades. I ask if she has ever been in combat.
She seems surprised. "No. Of course not." Technically, women received
the right to vote in the early 1960s, and everyone talks about Kabul in
the 1970s, when women wore miniskirts and were the smartest ones in the
medical schools. But Afghanistan is scarred by decades of war and
occupation. The fact that a law like the family planning law could even
be conceived in 2009 - even if it did come through Iranian-influenced
radical mullahs as many believe - is surprising to most Afghans.

speed of which this law has gone through [to the president] has shocked
me" says Soraya Sobrhang, . "It's not a law - it is theft." In April,
Sobrhang and some of her colleagues staged a protest. "Suddenly, about
200 students from the madrassa surrounded us." The women were stoned -
Sobrhang , a grandmother, was hit on the shoulder and nearly knocked to
the ground. Their banners were torn as the angry men blocked them from
moving towards the parliament. I keep thinking of this image - of the
tiny grandmother and her brave colleagues surrounded by hissing
madrassa students. Soraya says she is not afraid.

But other
people are - for the future of their daughters. Back in Kabul, Seema
Ghani organises a lunch for her friends - all powerful, emancipated
women. It is true that they are a small class within Afghanistan, but
they have very different backgrounds. Some were educated in the west;
some lived in America. Some like Aziza Momman, who ran girls schools
during the time of the Taliban, or Fahima Barati, who runs a school for
dressmaking, hold traditional views. But they are united on one point:
the law stuns all of them.

As they talk it sounds like the kind
of banter I could hear at home in Paris. A middle- aged woman
recounting how her husband left her for a younger woman; an overworked
mum talking of her daughter resenting her job; a single woman
complaining about finding a man in your 40s. Except these stories have
a deeper resonance: the husband leaves his wife for a younger second
wife; the daughter is embarrassed by her feminist mother who does not
wear a burka and is threatened by the Taliban; the woman in her 40s
complains that an Afghan man is happy to have a spirited intelligent
lover, but when it comes down to it, "they want the virgin!" "The glass
ceiling is very thick here," admits Katrin Fakiri, "those who
break it have to be exceptional." And Meena Sherzoy, who runs her own
business, says, "If we had female leadership, this law would not be
going through . . . would not even be raised."

Before I leave, I
meet Hasina Syed Jouvenal, who at 27 is managing a fistful of different
enterprises (including her latest, trying to import tomato hot-houses
to be run by a women-only farm) and the mother of two small girls.

can do anything," she says brightly when we talk about the law -
meaning that women can turn it around. "They make better managers. They
are more trustworthy. And they have kind hearts. I am going to continue
using them as managers because it is my way of moving women forward." I
am not surprised when I hear that Hasina is being touted as a young
politician. But the law won't affect her - she has a British husband.

I leave, someone tells me the Taliban spring offensive has begun,
American troops are pouring in, and President Karzai is beginning his
political campaign. I keep thinking of Batool, the pregnant activist in
Bamiyan, and her baby, and her life in 20 years' time. If the law does
not pass and women continue rolling on, she has a chance. If not, she
might still be wearing a burka and never learn how to drive.

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