On 15 April 1,200 women took to the streets of Kabul in protest against President Karzai's Shia Family Law, which severely limits women’s rights and legalises marital rape.
For the most part, the demonstrators were young women, many of them students, who consider the new legislation backslides in the direction of the kind of anti-women legislation employed by the Taliban.
Karzai’s administration have so far refused to make the precise wording of the new laws public. However, it is known that the law’s Article 132 requires wives to submit to their husbands’ sexual demands, and that, furthermore, a husband can expect sex with his wife once in every four days except in the event of illness.
The law will apply only to Afghanistan’s 20-odd % Shia minority, not to all people. It looks a gambit by Karzai to win support from Shira clerics in the upcoming presidential election.
Even in the face of such a flagrantly oppressive action on the part of the Afghan government, the mobilisation against it by women from miles around Kabul — one woman walked for three hours to be there — was peaceful. The tenor of the demonstration was Islamic-reformist, arguing that the oppressive legislation is in itself un-Islamic in its attitude to women as, in the words of one demonstrator, “second-class humans”.
Kabul has not seen women’s rights demonstrations like this since the 1970s, and the reaction against the protestors was vicious. Women and men organised against the demonstration and in support of the law, accusing the protestors of being bad Muslims and hurling stones at them, as well as tearing down banners bearing slogans like “We don't want Taliban law”, “We Want Dignity in the Law" and "Islam is Justice”.
The women's counter-demonstration was comprised of around 300 female students at the Khatam-ul-Nabieen Shia University, which is attached to one of Kabul’s largest mosques and is overseen by Shia cleric Mohammed Asif Mohseni, a fervent supporter of the new law. The way that this university was used to mobilise against a genuine grass-roots uprising is indicative of the power of clerical institutions in Afghanistan. The right-wing government is able to use the clerical education system to manipulate the people into not only submitting to but in fact arguing for legislation that is no better than the laws that were in place under the Taliban.
The women who gathered in Kabul did so at great personal risk. Many individual women who tried to make their way to the demonstration were driven home by a co-ordinated response from the new law’s supporters, whether by force or by the force of taunts that shamed them into retreat. Whatever their political limitations, the protestors must be applauded for their bravery and supported in any subsequent actions against the state, the clerics and other forces of patriarchial oppression in Afghanistan.