26 Oct 2010

Some Afghan women want West to back off 'rape law'

Canada.com April 13, 2009
Afghan women want West to back off 'rape law'

By Matthew Fisher | Canwest News Service

KABUL — As Afghanistan's Parliament debated ways Monday to protect female politicians from assassination, young women attending Kabul University expressed surprise and bewilderment at the debate raging in Canada and Europe over a proposed law that seems to allow men from the Shiite Hazara minority to sexually enslave their wives and imprison them in their homes.

The nearly unanimous view on the campus — arguably the most progressive institution in Afghanistan — was that the West should not involve itself in the country's cultural and religious affairs.

"This is not a good law. Women should be allowed to do what they want," said Hamida Hasani, 18, a Hazara architecture student at Kabul University. She said she was familiar with the controversial legislation, which President Hamid Karzai has pledged to urgently review in the face of strong complaints from western governments.

"But we do not want total freedom. We wanted it to be limited and to be within Islam."

Told of the furor the proposed law has caused in Canada and elsewhere, and about the murder of women's activist and Kandahar provincial council member Sitara Achakzai on Sunday, Hasani said the problem of women's rights in Afghanistan belongs to Afghan woman — no one else.

"They don't know anything about us and our problems," she said. "If they faced what we have faced with hunger and war, they'd realize what is most important to fight for here. Before they come here they should . . . experience our difficulties."

No female or male students at Kabul University except Hasani were aware of the pending Shia family legislation or of Achakzai's murder by Taliban gunmen in Kandahar City.

It's not surprising that few Afghans know about the Shia legislation "because public awareness of any legislation before Parliament is very low," said Fauzia Kofi, 32, a wife and mother of two and a women's rights campaigner who represents the Badakhshan constituency.

"This new Shia law got very little attention anywhere until it appeared in the Guardian and became a big international story. It is still not a big domestic story. Shia women do not understand the implications of this law because they regard this as a cultural issue that is linked to religion, whereas I believe there is a difference between culture and religion."

Hasani and two Hazara girlfriends, Laila Saberi and Keshwar Haidary, who were walking together across from the main entrance to the university after class, were emphatic that the sole role in Afghanistan of NATO nations was "to provide better security. Nothing else."

This opinion frustrated Kofi, who had her personal bodyguard doubled from four to eight by the government Monday because of Achakzai's murder and recent threats by insurgents to kidnap her.

"NATO is here to fight terror but if you do not protect democracy and human rights we may not end up with terrorism but with extremism, which is just as bad," she said, minutes after condemning Achakzai's murder in Parliament. "If you speak of human rights or women rights in Afghanistan you get accused of having converted to Christianity."

Nevertheless, the consensus among the students at a coffee shop popular with the university crowd was that, bad as the proposed law might be, it's none of NATO's business.

"This law is not something that Karzai should sign because there must be mutual agreement within a marriage, but what westerners have to realize is that it is much better for us than it was before when the Taliban behaved so badly towards us," said Shapera Azzizulah, 41, a married Tajik Sunni pharmacist who had dropped by for a cup of coffee after picking up a copy of her university degree.

"Under the Taliban I was forced to wear a burka and my sister was beaten once on her feet for only showing her eyes. Now I don't wear a burka, so that is progress.

"That does not mean that I am happy with everything at all. I am very concerned about men here who have sexual intercourse with very young girls. These men should be sentenced to die. If a couple of them were executed it were executed it would be a lesson to all the bad men."

Picking at a plate of french fries, Fahima Riosi, an 18 year old Tajik Sunni student of Russian literature, complained in Afghanistan's singsong Farsi dialect of "night letters" being received at the hostel for female students that she lived in that threatened to destroy the building and harm its residents if it was not closed.

"I am so scared that when I go to bed I can't sleep," she confided as her roommate, Andesha Sadeet, nodded in agreement.

Like Azzizulah and the three young Hazara students, Riosi and Sadeet said their fathers had initially opposed them going to university, but finally relented when they insisted.

"There is change in Afghanistan today," Riosi said. "There is respect for us if we are educated or if we work.

"But westerners want to change Afghanistan for their benefit, not for ours. They have a bad view of our culture. Some of our women imitate their clothes and their ways. Our freedom must come within Islam."

Sadeet added: "I don't want to see the faces of the Taliban again, but I do not want our culture to change. It is right that we should not go out without our families' permission. I would not want it to be any other way."

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