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In an interview, Soraya Pakzad says culture, economy may impact women's rights more than the Taliban.
HERAT — Soraya Pakzad projects calm and serenity, qualities that are at odds with her daily routine. For the past six years she has been rescuing Afghan women from the steady round of violence and coercion that is all too often their lot in life.
A winner of the 2008 Women of Courage award, given by the U.S. State Department for exceptional leadership and bravery, Pakzad has created a small oasis of safety for women in her native Herat, Afghanistan’s second city.
But her work as the head of the organization Voices of Afghan Women is becoming more difficult as the government’s hold on security weakens and the economy declines.
“We have had to pull out of areas we worked in three years ago,” said Pakzad, sitting in her comfortable office on a tree-lined street in the city center. “The situation is worse, the policy is worse.”
One aspect of that policy is the Shi’ia Family Law, a highly contentious bill passed by parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai last month.
The law has grabbed headlines and unleashed rhetoric around the world, causing at least one NATO member to question its commitment to maintaining troops in Afghanistan.
Judging by the diplomatic brouhaha, the most inflammatory provision of the law requires a wife to satisfy her husband’s sexual desires, and mandates that a husband has a right to demand sex at least once every four nights. This has led to its being dubbed “the rape law” by media outlets around the world.
Pakzad smiles indulgently at the fuss. The reality is that no Afghan woman, Shi’ia or Sunni, has the right to object to her husband’s advances. The international outcry, while well meaning, misses the point: It is not a single law that is the problem, it is the overall status of women.
“Our law does not recognize rape within marriage,” she said. “The moment a woman is married, her husband is authorized to do whatever he wants.”
Shi’ia are a minority in predominantly Sunni Afghanistan, comprising approximately 15 percent of the population. Special provisions within the Afghan Constitution allow the Shi’ia to have special laws that pertain only to their communities. The offending law was pushed through parliament by a few powerful MPs, observers say, and done quickly and quietly.
“This law was very professionally passed through the parliament,” Pakzad said. “Even some of the women MPs did not object to it, because it was not explained well. There were just a few Shi’ia fundamentalists, very strict. I had always thought the Shi’ia were more liberal than the Sunni.”
The law, which President Barack Obama deemed “abhorrent,” contains many articles that severely curtail women’s rights. Among other restrictions, the law requires a wife to have her husband’s permission to leave the house except in dire emergencies; in its original form, the law sought to lower the legal age of marriage to 12 or even younger.
The law's Article 132 requires wives to submit to their husband's sexual demands. It was strongly condemned by human rights groups around the world and by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, which issued a scathing report about the proposed law.
Most women in Afghanistan still face severe limitations in their personal lives. More than 50 percent of girls are married before they reach the legal age of 16, domestic violence is prevalent, and, especially in the conservative south, women cannot leave the house without permission from a male family member.