Afghanistan's Women Find Their Voice

Law that UN says legalises rape sparks street protest • New generation of young activists defy the clerics

Despite being called a prostitute and a bitch by furious madrasa students, Shinkai Karokhail, one of Afghanistan's
68 MPs with seats constitutionally reserved for women, described what
happened on Wednesday morning as "a wonderful occasion".

"It was
the first time in the history of Afghanistan that women were aware of
their rights," she said. "It was a fantastic statement that women will
demand equal rights."

The previous evening one of Afghanistan's
most powerful Shia clerics, Mohamad Asif Mohseni, published an order on
his personal television station that members of his sect must not allow
their wives and daughters to attend the unprecedented and historic
demonstration in Kabul against a law the UN says legalises marital rape.

among the people who tuned in to the broadcast on Tamadon was a young
woman called Adila. She lives in a large Shia neighbourhood on the
outskirts of Kabul and was enraged by what she saw as an attempt to
stop her going to the protest the following morning.

"He had no
right to tell us what to do - these are our rights. I knew that this
was my responsibility to go to the gathering," she said.

fearing her parents would stop her leaving and that Mohseni's followers
would prevent her from boarding public buses, she sneaked out of the
house in the early hours and walked for nearly three hours.

of her neighbours, Halima Hosseini, also travelled to the
demonstration, and was horrified by the attempts of local men to stop
her. "When I left my house there were large numbers of schoolgirls, but
they weren't wearing their uniforms and they were going to go to the
demonstration," she said. "But these groups of men ordered us to return
to our houses and said we were Jewish and slaves of the Christians.
Some of them spat in our faces."

While many women appeared to
turn back, in the end about 200 turned out for the protest outside
Mohseni's imposing mosque and seminary. They were met by hundreds of
his enraged supporters who hurled abuse and, according to many of the
demonstrators, stones. Not since 1970 has there been a remotely
comparable demonstration of women's rights in Afghanistan.

issue that sparked this week's action was the Shia Family Law, a piece
of legislation quietly signed into law by President Hamid Karzai last
month after intense pressure from Shia clerics and some of the leaders
of the Hazara community - a predominately Shia ethnic minority with
enormous electoral clout in a year when Afghanistan will hold
presidential elections.

It gives Shia husbands wide-ranging
powers over their wives, who are not allowed to leave the house without
their husband's permission or to refuse him sex without a medical
excuse. The Guardian's revelations about the law brought international
outrage, with world leaders, including Barack Obama, lining up to
condemn Karzai, who was forced to announce a Ministry of Justice review
of the law.

What appears to have spurred the women activists was
last week's television broadcast by Mohseni saying Karzai must not bow
to western pressure to change the law. "We couldn't agree on whether to
have a demonstration until Mohseni said that no one has any right to
change the law," said Fatima Hussaini, one of the young activists

"We had to show that he is not the only leader of the Shia and that he has no right to do this to women."

the demonstration would probably have never happened without the
involvement of a more demanding young generation of women activists.

Saqeb, a 27-year-old film-maker who, with half a dozen other young,
middle-class women, decided to organise the demonstration, said most
women MPs opposed their plan. She said: "Only two of the women MPs in
parliament supported us from the beginning. They said it is dangerous,
because of the security situation. The Taliban supports this law and
when the Taliban supports the law maybe it will attack the women who
oppose it."

Soraya Sobrang, 51, an activist at the Afghanistan
Independent Human Rights Commission, said the young women's attitude
reflects the profound changes that have happened since the US-led
toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001.

"Women in Afghanistan now
have some education and awareness about their rights, they know that
they can demand for their lives and their future."

The question
remains whether they have done enough to force Karzai to change the
law. A group of women will meet with Karzai in the presidential palace
on Tuesday, but Saqeb said she was not optimistic.

"We are very
near to the election and Mr Karzai is scared by the mullahs - if he
supports us, the mullahs will not support him. But at least now the
government and all the people know that women won't be quiet ... we
showed that Afghan women are angry and this is our issue too."

Political move to win swing voters

condemnation from human rights groups, President Hamid Karzai last
month gave the go ahead for Shia family law to be passed into statute.

move brought immediate condemnation from the UN, which claims the
legislation legalises rape within marriage and bans wives from stepping
outside the home without their husband's permission.

leaders, most notably President Barack Obama, were quick to condemn the
Afghan leader's move, which for many bore chilling similarities to the
doctrine promoted during the years of Taliban rule in Kabul. Humaira
Namati, a member of the upper house of the Afghan parliament, said the
law was in fact "worse than during the Taliban".

After seven
years as president of Afghanistan, Karzai is increasingly unpopular at
home and abroad and he faces an election in August that is expected to
be extremely tight.

Leaders of the Hazara minority, which is
regarded as the most important bloc of swing voters in the election,
are among those who demanded the new law.

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