Archive for April 22nd, 2009

Brazil is a Catholic country, but in this row the Church has been controversial. The issue of abortion in Brazil has been making headlines not just in South America’s biggest country, but around the world.

The controversy began when news emerged from Pernambuco, a poor state in the north-east of Brazil, that a nine-year-old girl who had been raped was pregnant with twins. It is alleged that she had been sexually abused for years by her stepfather, who is also suspected of sexually assaulting an older disabled sister. He is now in prison.

Public interest in the case soared when the local Catholic archbishop tried to block the girl from having an abortion.

Brazilian law allows abortion only if there is a risk to the life of the mother or in cases of rape. Doctors said the girl met both those conditions, and said she was so small her uterus was not big enough to carry one baby, never mind two. Opponents of abortion say the girl could have safely had a Caesarean section. In the end the abortion went ahead and the local archbishop, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, said all those adults involved – the mother and the medical team – had been excommunicated.

The archbishop later insisted it was not he who was ordering the excommunication, but that he had been simply restating the teachings of the Church. His statement attracted widespread condemnation, led by Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who said as a “Christian and a Catholic” he deeply regretted the bishop’s conservative attitude.

Archbishop Sobrinho then added to the storm of protest by saying that while the stepfather had allegedly carried out a “heinous act”, excommunication did not automatically apply to him.

The controversy then spread to Rome where it appears to have provoked a surprising divergence of opinion at the highest levels. One senior Vatican official appeared to back the Brazilian archbishop and then another to sharply contradict him.

It seems, however, the controversy may have led to other consequences in Brazil that Archbishop Sobrinho did not foresee, and which almost certainly he would not have welcomed.

Those who would like see a more liberal law on abortion say the fact that the Brazilian state – from the president down – rallied so firmly to the side of the doctors involved in this case will give renewed courage to their medical colleagues across the country. Even in circumstances where abortion is legal, it seems doctors here have proceeded nervously, fearful some say of a negative reaction from the media or the Roman Catholic Church.

Anibal Faundes, professor of obstetrics at the University of Campinas, says legal abortions – of which there were 3,053 between January and November in 2008 – are now carried out in around 500 hospitals in Brazil, mainly in Sao Paulo and the south-east of the country. He is clear about the most important consequences of the case involving the girl in Pernambuco.

“Everybody realised that Brazil is in favour of abortion in case of rape and risk to the woman’s life,” he says emphatically. That was not clear before. But during the last two weeks it was perfectly clear if you are against abortion after rape and abortion when there is risk to the life of the person then everybody will be against you. That is what changed in the last two weeks. Those within the Church that are extremely conservative with respect to this subject have lost a lot of ground,” he argues.

Cardinal Odilo Scherer, archbishop of Sao Paulo, was reluctant to be drawn on the specific issues of the recent controversy. Speaking generally, he told the BBC News website that the position of the Church in relation to abortion in cases of rape or a threat to the life of the mother was the same everywhere in the world.

“The Church’s position is always to defend life and trying all that is possible to first avoid these things happening, for this we need proper sex education, to teach people how to behave, in a socially responsible way. Secondly, to do everything possible to ensure life is protected, because no matter what happened to create this life, even if it was through violence, it will always be considered a human being, a helpless and defenceless human being. I can understand how a woman who is carrying a baby after being violently raped feels, but there is always a possibility to help this woman to cope with this situation. There are many ways today that the medical profession can help to save the lives of this woman and child.” He concedes, however, that some damage may have been done to the Church’s position. “It is possible, yes, that it has,” he says. “All this publicity, this criticism that was made of the Church has in some form weakened the position of the Church in defence of life and against abortion.”

The case has also renewed attention on illegal abortions in Brazil – at one million per year, estimated to far outnumber legal procedures. Every year, about 200,000 women seek medical help from the state system after having sought illegal procedures in back-street clinics.

Outside a bleak and graffiti-covered building which was once an abortion clinic in Sao Paulo, but which has now been closed by the authorities, Andrea has grim memories.

“I [went through] the process and I wasn’t left with any ill-effects,” she says of the illegal procedure. “But this place was pretty much a like a butcher’s shop. There was not any preparation, psychologically or clinically.”

When the clinic was closed, police said they found a secret corridor leading to a room where the patients stayed. Out-of-date medicines and syringes believed to have been reused were also discovered.

For those with more money, there is access to better facilities.

Paula paid 2,000 reais ($890; £610) for her abortion but says she was not concerned about the clinic, as it appeared to have acceptable standards. She says she had an abortion because she was in the middle of a separation, and couldn’t afford to raise a child.

“It was clean and bright. It was a big fancy place, and a lot of girls were there with mothers and boyfriends.”

Abortion – both legal and illegal – seems certain to be an issue that will make headlines again in Brazil in the not too distant future.

The Catholic Church may have been temporarily pushed onto the defensive, but it regards the issue as a crucial moral battleground, and is certain to return to make its case with renewed vigour in the months and years ahead.

Some of the names in this report have been changed


Vatican accuses Belgium of trying to ‘intimidate’ Pope after Parliament decision condemns his comments on condoms

In an unusual diplomatic move the Vatican today accused Belgium of trying to “intimidate” Pope Benedict XVI following a resolution by the Belgian Parliament condemning the pontiff for saying during a recent trip to Africa that the use of condoms could worsen the spread of Aids.

In a statement the Vatican said it was inappropriate to criticise the Pope. The episode had been used “by some groups” in an attempt to “intimidate” the pontiff from expressing Church teachings and “expressing himself on certain themes of obvious moral relevance”. It said the Pope’s remarks, made on the papal plane to Cameroon last month had been taken out of context and were an “isolated extract”.

France and Germany also criticised the Pope’s comments as irresponsible. But the Belgian Parliament went further and passed a resolution calling them “unacceptable”, demanding that the Belgian government make a formal protest. Belgium’s ambassador to the Holy See delivered the protest on April 15.

The Vatican Secretariat of State, which issued the statement, said it “notes with regret this action, unusual in the context of the diplomatic relations existing between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Belgium.” It deplored “the fact that a parliamentary assembly should have thought it appropriate to criticise the Holy Father on the basis of an isolated extract from an interview, separated from its context”, and attacked the “unprecedented media campaign” in Europe over the Pope’s remarks on condoms, accusing the media of ignoring Benedict’s full message on the need to care for those suffering from Aids.

By contrast Africans and “the true friends of Africa” had praised the pontiff’s remarks, it said. Pope Benedict, who this week turned 82, marks his fourth anniversary as pontiff on Sunday.

The statement said: “As is well known, the Holy Father, in answer to a question concerning the efficacy and the realistic character of the Church’s positions on combating Aids, stated that the solution is to be sought in two directions: on the one hand through bringing out the human dimension of sexuality; and on the other, through true friendship and willingness to help persons who are suffering”.

It added: “Without this moral and educational dimension, the battle against Aids will not be won. While in some European countries an unprecedented media campaign was unleashed concerning the predominant, not to say exclusive, value of prophylactics in the fight against Aids, it is consoling to note that the moral considerations articulated by the Holy Father were understood and appreciated, in particular by the Africans and the true friends of Africa, as well as by some members of the scientific community.”

While her peers get ready to go to school each morning, 14-year-old Matipedza (not her real name) of Marange district in Manicaland has to stay behind to prepare breakfast for her 67-year-old husband.

Although her marriage is not legally registered, it is customarily recognised, and the teenager is expected to live as a housewife and soon bear children.

“I can’t go against [the will of] my elders and leave my husband in order to attend school. Besides, where would I go if I leave? My parents will not welcome me,” said Matipedza.

Her case is not unique. In fact, the majority of school-going girls in Marange, some as young as ten, have been married to older men from their church, the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect, which is infamous for believing in polygamy. Most marriages are arranged between adult men and under-age girls.

Although it is criminal under the recently enacted Domestic Violence Act to marry off an under-age girl – the age of sexual consent in Zimbabwe is 16 years – it is difficult to stop these marriages, as members of the sect are complicit and secretive.

Recently released research by Harare-based non-governmental organisation Women and Law Southern Africa (WLSA) has shown that young girls in early marriages are likely to suffer birth complications, some of them resulting in death.

The WLSA study also revealed that those girls are prone to cervical cancer, suffer psychological trauma and encounter a host of problems, such as failing to deal with the social pressures that come with being a wife in a polygamous union.

The findings have forced Zimbabwean authorities to step up efforts to stop the practice that has forced thousands of girls in the Marange, Odzi and Buhera districts of Manicaland to drop out of school.

Although current data is not available, statistics from the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture district office reveal that out of the 10,000 girls who enrolled in Form One in the Marange district in 2000, only about a third completed Form Four in 2003.

“Those who dropped out became wives, with a small number dropping out because they could not afford the fees,” said a senior district education officer who did not want to be named.

School dropouts

Most girls stop schooling in July when the sect celebrates Passover, a religious festivity during which marriage ceremonies take place.

Gideon Mombeshora, a sect member, told IPS that most men in the church prefer to marry under-age girls because it is easier to control them. “Most men want to get married to docile women. The younger the bride the more chances for dominance for the man,” he said.

He further explained the sect strongly believes in the practice of under-age brides: “Although it is not in our church’s statutes that old men should marry under-age girls, the practice is deeply entrenched in our belief system.”

Former senator Sheila Mahere said early marriages are a social ill that threatens to derail government’s bid to fulfil its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on increasing access to primary education as girls continue to drop out of the already constrained education system.

“Early marriages threaten national economic development, as bright and intelligent girls are forced out of school to become cheap labour and child bearers in their homesteads. Most of the girls become farm labourers on their husbands’ farms,” she said.

The Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe-Africa (UDA-CIZA), a coalition of 160 apostolic sects in Zimbabwe, said tries to raise awareness among apostolic sect leaders of the dangers of early marriages. But in most cases, it faces serious resistance.

“The police has been the biggest let down in early forced child marriages as they have continued to turn a blind eye to these crimes,” explain UDA-CIZA programme manager Edson Tsvakai. “We sometimes report some of our members to the police for these crimes but there have been very few successful prosecutions, largely because police view these cases as not serious and because some of the sect leaders are highly networked with the authorities.”

Serious resistance

In 2007, the Harare-based Girl Child Network, rescued an 11-year-old girl who had been married off to a 44-year-old man in Buhera. The man was successfully prosecuted and sentenced to six months in jail. However, shortly thereafter, the sentence was suspended and the girl had to live in a safe house because the unrepentant husband continued to claim her as his wife.

Caroline Nyamayemombe, gender officer at the United Nations Population and Development Agency (UNFPA) country office in Harare, says studies have confirmed that teenage pregnancy is on the increase in Zimbabwe and a leading cause of maternal mortality.

“Young girls are married off to men often older than their own fathers. This scenario has significantly contributed to pregnancy complications in teenage mothers. These harmful cultural practices are rampant in some districts in the country,” she explained.

Nyamayemombe said apart from religious beliefs, poverty is one of the key reasons for early marriages, as UNFPA data have shown that about 80 percent of pregnant teenagers come from poor families.

“Single adolescent girls who become pregnant are more likely to drop out of school, thus compromising their future earning capacity and becoming more likely to end in poverty. Maternal mortality and mortality from HIV/AIDS related causes become a reality for these girls and often lead or exacerbate poverty,” she added.

A pregnant teenager faces the risk of immature uterine muscles and mucous membranes that pose serious danger and a high risk of a ruptured uterus in cases of prolonged labour.

Women’s rights experts are speaking out against a recent government report that condones limiting health care services for families with too many children and replacing feminist discourse with religious schooling in the southeast of the country.

The Prime Ministry has suffered a backlash of criticism after releasing a report that would encourage cutting health care services for families with many children and implementing religious education to help solve women’s problems in Southeast Turkey.

In an effort to find solution to problems faced by families in eastern and southeastern Turkey, the Prime Ministry’s General Directorate of Family and Social Research held two consultation meetings in Diyarbakır in 2008 with nongovernmental organizations in the region, Radikal daily reported yesterday.

Supervised by Nimet Çubukçu, state minister in charge of women and family affairs, the meeting’s outcomes were compiled in a 15-page report. Of the solutions, the most striking was the proposal for a new law that would hinder women from having an excessive number of children and cut health services to those families that exceed a certain number of children. The feminist language adopted by the media in news about honor killings should also be changed, and accurate religious information should take place in the media, according to the report. The move came shortly after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for Turkish families to have at least three children.

“What is displayed in the report is very racist and ideological. Instead of dealing with the feminist discourse, they should find solutions to the structural problems in the region, such as establishing women’s centers,” Hülya Gülbahar, head of the Association of Education and Supporting Women Candidates, or Ka-Der, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

“It doesn’t find a solution but rather creates a problem by punishing women who have an excessive number of children [and depriving them of health services] in a region that suffers deep economic problems and rising unemployment,” she said.

Gülbahar said the government policies confined women to their role at home and valued the woman solely as a mother. “The ruling party [Justice and Development Party, or AKP] has unfortunately long been in a bitter battle with feminism,” said Gülbahar. “They have a prejudice against feminism because they can’t bear the image of an independent woman. The party should reconcile with feminism.”

Nebahat Akkoç is the head of the Women’s Center, or Ka-Mer, in Diyarbakır. The organization has many branches in other provinces of eastern and southeastern Anatolia and produced numerous works on honor killings and violence against women since it was founded in 1997. As the head of an old institution specializing in women’s problems in the region, Akkoç reacted to the organizers for not inviting them to the meeting.

“It is a consultation meeting with NGOs but we knew nothing about such an event nor were we invited to the meeting. We have done much work on women’s issues here. I think [Çubukçu] owes us an explanation. We will demonstrate a collective reaction to the situation with the women’s organizations here,” Akkoç said.

She said the official policies have played the most crucial role in the rising number of women-related problems, urging the government to deal with the region’s more urgent problems such as poverty, migration from villages to cities, women’s education, integration of those who come to the cities and communication problems stemming from language and the multi-cultural structure of the region.

“Releasing such a report is useless toward eliminating such problems in a region where the disparities are so big,” Akkoç said.

Nilüfer Narlı, a sociologist form Bahçeşehir University, meanwhile, said punishment cannot solve the problem and that what is suggested in the report is not in line with women’s reproductive rights. “It is not humane to deprive people of health services and it isn’t a long-term solution to the problem. The governmental policies already anticipate the participation of religious authorities and institutions in raising awareness activities targeted women and people [on such issues],” Narlı said.

While some security has finally arrived for the women of Basra, deep-rooted extremism remains an obstacle as they attempt to rebuild their lives

Lamis Munshed grew up in a house of music, filled with tambourines, lutes and newly carved guitars, and the scent of freshly cut timber hanging in the air like incense. But that was before the militias over-ran Basra, outlawing most sport and music and confining women like her to their homes.

“That was our livelihood,” the 26-year-old said of the vocation her father was ordered to abandon, leading to the family’s income being slashed. Although security has improved, her father is too fearful of the militias’ return to start up his business again – but Lamis, at least, has been able to restart her studies, walk down the streets and dare to dream again.

Even so, as British troops depart Basra, her life is far short of the utopia she had envisaged when Challenger tanks first rolled into town six years ago. “When the British came first to Basra, the people’s reaction to them was fine,” she said. “Then it started to change, because of the different ideologies and the outsiders who came to Iraq to settle an account with America and the Iraqi people. We were the victims.”

Before the Saddam years and even during them, Iraq blazed a trail in the education of women, with highly qualified females earning prominent positions in many public roles as well as academia and medicine. It was hailed as a hub of learning across the region and a relatively progressive beacon which women in neighbouring states could some day hope to emulate.

But it has never been easy to be a woman in Basra. Under Saddam’s rule, women in the southern city had a much more restricted life than their counterparts in other Iraqi regions.

Basran society had always lagged behind, in attitudes, as well as in tangibles. And when the British arrived in 2003, it seemed at first as though things might change for the better. “It was nice to know there was no longer a dictator looking over us,” said Basma al-Waili, an elderly Basran.

But within a couple of years, the British soldiers had retreated to their bases. Militias filled the void, bringing with them hardline Islamic teachings that made life insufferable for Basra women. Their city and the surrounding areas were ravaged by an insurgency that placed it high among the most violent enclaves in an impossibly brutal country. Many of the basic tenets of family life were simply put on hold. Ambition had to wait. Now, again, the possibility of improvement is beginning to seep into women’s minds.

“We suffered a lot,” said Dr Nisrine Salem, 38, a physician at Basra hospital. “For 35 years we were too terrified to express our opinion. Since 2003, the change has been substantial, but we are still suffering. It’s like when a child is born, he comes from darkness to light. Now we are thinking of studying and travelling, and learning more from researchers and experts.”

Salem feels less opposition from society these days to her role as a professional. “I think women enjoy around 80-90% more liberation than before,” she said. “Basra women have seized their freedom and in many ways we have broken the chains that once bound us … The British gave us security. Now it’s up to us.”

But many other women are far less bullish, believing tribal customs and long-hated societal laws have been legitimised by the enforcement of four years of puritanical Islamic law.

Eham al-Zubeidi, 33, women’s advocate, said the departing troops unwittingly ushered in such regressive moves throughout society. “The coalition forces were responsible for the terrorists crossing our borders,” she claimed. “They turned the streets into graveyards for many women and children.

“The will of Iraqis to save their lives made them stand on their feet again, but we still need to fight prejudice and ignorance in our society. We will succeed … After 2004-05, it was very difficult for women – and it was also harder for the men. There were extra burdens on both sides. People were very tired psychologically, healthcare was crushed. There was no hope. But we have … prevailed. Our land will always create and regenerate.”

“Basra was a sad city over the last six years,” said science student Yisra Mohammed Al-Rubaiy, 22. “All you ever heard was that someone who you know was killed. There was a soundtrack of gunshots or clashes and there were so many problems for women. You cannot imagine the numbers of women who were killed. But now we as women can say the greatest part of the threat has gone, and I hope it will never return.”

Intesar Salem, 48, a secondary school teacher, said breaking the hold of fundamental Islam was a partial key to a budding regeneration she sees now. However, she said attitudes needed to change to stabilise the gains. “We want to separate religion and state in Iraq. We do not want to distinguish between Iraqis on the basis of nationality and religion, gender and race. We want equality for all inhabitants of Iraq and we want equality for women.”

Iraqi women still have a long path to travel. The United Nations Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit says only 18% of women participate in the labour force nationwide, and 24% of women are illiterate. Illiteracy rates are at least three times higher for women over 50, with around 18% of Iraqi girls aged 18-29 unable to read or write.

“My daughters have stopped going to school altogether,” said Kareema Saber, 34, a widowed pensioner with eight children. “They left because I cannot pay for them.” Her three school-aged boys are still attending classes.

Mona Massoud, director of the Iraqi Women’s League, said education was under chronic stress, because many teachers have fled and families who had kept their children from school now wanted them to catch up on lost years of learning. “There are no new kindergartens, the schools are very crowded,” she said. “There are three shifts of children attending schools each day. The militias and the military raids caused chaos in education.”

Vocational training is also under pressure. Many women need to work because the family’s main income earner was killed, but there are a tiny number of training facilities to meet demand.

“Now women have an opportunity to participate more, but there is a quota,” said Massoud. “We are teaching women how to use the computer, and sewing and hair-dressing. They are only small projects, but they are a start for greater participation.”

Kareema Hassan, a social affairs officer in the Basra governorate, said: “Large numbers of women have begun coming to our centre asking for jobs. Many of them are widows, they don’t ask for money, they want to work.” A small number of government and council grants are available, but nowhere near enough to cater for demand.

“We are trying many ways to reduce the effects of unemployment and we are also trying to reduce illiteracy rates,” Hassan added. “Basra society has begun to accept women working to help men. They are getting better salaries, but not by much.”

That is some comfort to students such as Hiba Karim, 21, who attends a college in central Basra. But she still worries intently about her future in the new Iraq.

“We still have many fears. When I go to college I wear a hijab. I am very scared of extremist parties, but I can learn and study. I hope to get work. Security has improved dramatically here. The real war which targeted women has ended, but our fears still exist because Basra is a tribal society and it is restricted by religious and tribal tradition. But I can say that the women of Basra have finally started to breathe the freedom.”

Suha Abbas, 24, a recent engineering graduate, is still looking for a job two years after graduating. “Young women here have the same problems as other Iraqi women,” she says. “Most companies prefer to employ men only. We don’t have an equal chance.

“Security has improved, but not everywhere. It seems unbelievable that in some districts, women doctors, teachers and activists have been assassinated for not wearing hijabs. But it’s true … In Basra, a woman can go to college and work, but she cannot drive a car, go out for the evening, or play sport.”

Assma Abdul Majeed, 32, an Arabic teacher, said piecemeal gains would be close to pointless without a revolutionary approach to shifting centuries of tradition and a blind acceptance of crimes against women, such as violence, which remains pervasive in Basra society.

The United Nations report found that one in five married women throughout the country had been a victim of violence. Prosecuting a violent husband is almost unheard of, because of a woman’s reluctance to bring “shame” on her family by going to the police and because of cumbersome laws that require two witnesses to support any accusation.

Zainab al-Zubeidi, 40, who runs a women’s charity in Basra, said: “Violence is a very, very big problem, especially in the tribes. We have established a violence against women network. But there is also a role for women themselves. If they don’t want to change, how can we change them?”

But, she continued: “If I have to compare, or choose I would go with life as it is now. We know that sacrifices have to be made … It is the price we pay for something they really want, in our case freedom. It was worth every drop of blood spilled on this land. It is our fate and our future. Women in Iraq are becoming more visible on many stages. They need that and have earned it.”

Part of a longer article at

See also:
* Iraqi babies for sale: people trafficking crisis grows as gangs exploit poor families and corrupt system
* Six gay men shot to death in Iraq by tribe members
* Will Iraq Crack Down on Sex Trafficking?
* Iraq’s Unspeakable Crime: Mothers Pimping Daughters

• Two gunmen behind killing in Kandahar
• Legislator’s colleagues had warned her of attack

A leading female Afghan politician was shot dead yesterday after leaving a provincial council meeting in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, which her colleagues had begged her not to attend.

Sitara Achakzai was attacked by two gunmen as she arrived at her home in a rickshaw – a vehicle colleagues said she deliberately chose to use to avoid attracting attention.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the murder. The two gunmen were apparently waiting for Achakzai, a 52-year-old women’s rights activist who had lived for many years in Germany when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan.

Officials said she returned in 2004 to her home in Kandahar, which is also the birthplace and spiritual home of the Taliban.

One of Achakzai’s friends, speaking anonymously, said colleagues had begged her not to attend the meeting, which takes place twice a week.

“She knew the danger she was in. Just a couple of days ago she was joking about the fact that she had a 300,000 rupee price on her head,” she said. “Like other women she would always travel in a rickshaw rather than a big armoured Humvee because it’s less conspicuous, but it also made her easier prey.”

Achakzai’s life was in danger because she was not only a women’s rights activist but also as a local politician. Taliban militants target anyone associated with the government of Afghanistan and last month launched an audacious assault with four suicide bombers on the provincial council building in Kandahar city, killing 17 people.

There have been many other attacks on women in the province, including the assassination in 2006 of Safia Amajan, the head of the province’s women’s affairs department.

Malalai Kakar, a top policewoman in the city, was killed last September, and schoolgirls have had acid thrown in their faces as punishment for attending school.

Achakzai had put herself at the forefront of the women’s rights struggle in Kandahar, and last year organised a “prayer for peace” demonstration in one of the city’s biggest mosques on International Women’s Day.

About 1,500 women attended the event, although this year the women were banned from entering the building and instead held a meeting at the city’s human rights commission.

Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council and brother of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, said he had seen Achakzai earlier in the day before she was murdered, and had granted her leave from her duties so she could visit a sick relative in Canada.

“I had just said goodbye and joked that it was a good time to leave because our offices have been totally destroyed and need to be rebuilt.”

Karzai added that Achakzai had for the past two years held the post of secretary in the provincial council, which, until her death, had four female members of the 15-strong body. She was married to an academic who taught at Kandahar University.

Wenny Kusama, country director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, said the murder of Achakzai was an attack “on all freedom”.

Hundreds of angry Afghan women gathered outside the Kabul mosque run by a hardline Shia cleric to protest against a law that human rights organisations claim legalises marital rape.

About 200 women chanted slogans and carried banners outside the imposing Khatam Al Nabi mosque and seminary run by Mohammad Asif Mohseni, the cleric who has strongly promoted a law that also bans women from leaving their homes without the permission of their husbands.

Meanwhile, a roughly equal number of largely male counter-protesters shouted “Allahu Akbar” and furiously protested against what they see as largely foreign pressure to impose western cultural norms on Afghanistan.

According to Associated Press, some of the women were pelted with stones by opponents.

News that the law, which only affects Afghanistan’s Shia minority, had been quietly passed by President Hamid Karzai last month, prompted international fury when the Guardian revealed details of legislation that the US president, Barack Obama, described as “abhorrent”.

But today’s demonstration shows at least some Afghan women are as angered by the law as leading international critics, which also included Gordon Brown, Hillary Clinton and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the Nato secretary general.

A statement by the group of civil rights groups who organised the rally said it had been called to protest against a law that “insults dignity of women as fellow human beings and increases ethnocentrism and inequality”.

It said the law contradicted equal rights provisions in the constitution and demanded the scrapping of articles that give husbands the right to have sex with their wives whenever they chose, except during times when they are ill or menstruating.

Ayatollah Mohseni is a leading figure among Afghanistan’s Shias, who represent about 15% of the population and are seen as an important voting block in this year’s presidential elections.

The cleric recently defended the law, saying Karzai was wrong to bow to international pressure by ordering the justice ministry to review it.

He described the political pressure from western leaders as “cultural invasion, thinking one’s culture is better than others”.

Human Rights Watch strongly supported today’s protest and said Karzai should repeal the law.

“President Karzai should not sacrifice women for short-term political deal-making,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“He is playing with fire. How will he be able to refuse demands for similar discriminatory laws from other communities?”

Afghan women protest against ‘rape’
Stones Thrown at Afghan Women Protesters
Afghanistan Women Protest

Afghanistan’s Justice Ministry said on Monday a law for the country’s Shi’ite minority, which has caused an international uproar because of controversial provisions on women’s rights, is on hold and under review.

Following are some key facts about the Shi’ite Personal Status Law, based on a copy of the draft law obtained by Reuters.


The law was first discussed in parliament two years ago when Shi’ite parliamentarians said differences in their interpretation of Islam, compared to the existing civil law based on the majority Sunni religious law, needed to be legally recognised.

The lawmakers together with the Justice Ministry drafted a law, debated it in parliament about one month ago and presented it to President Hamid Karzai, who approved and signed the bill.


The United Nations agency for women in Kabul voiced concern last week about the impact it would have on the rights of Shi’ite women in Afghanistan after several female lawmakers said they were angry and concerned about some of the law’s articles.

The United States, Canada, Britain and NATO have voiced their concerns about the law and said it is must be reviewed.


According to a copy of the law obtained by Reuters, which included amendments made prior to Karzai’s approval, an article which can be seen to legalise marital rape has not changed.

This article sparked much of the anger and states that “a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband”.

Another article which was also not amended states a woman cannot inherit any of her husband’s wealth when he dies.

The law also states that women are only allowed to have custody of their daughters after a divorce until the daughter reaches the age of 9.

An earlier draft of the law said that a woman was not allowed to leave her home unaccompanied by her husband and that the marital age for women started at 9-years old.

Both have been amended to permit women to leave their homes unaccompanied for employment, medical treatment or education, and the age of marriage for women has been raised to 16 years.


The law also contains articles which lawmakers say represent an improvement on existing civil laws, based on Sunni religious law.

For instance, the civil law states only men can initiate divorce from their wives, but the Shi’ite Personal Status Law says the wife is allowed to complain to a court and seek divorce from her husband if he cannot feed her, or if he does not have sex with her for four months.

It also says a husband must provide accommodation for his wife, that a wife can refuse to live with her in-laws should she wish so and depending on the circumstances, and that a wife is not obliged to provide home expenditures out of her own income unless her husband is unable to work. (Compiled by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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