Afghanistan’s “Rape Law” In Context
I thought I would provide a bit of context for Afghanistan’s infamous new “rape law”, which Reilly brought up in an appropriately incredulous post. The issue is a good reminder of just how alien parts of the Islamic world can seem, from a Canadian perspective, but I think there are also a couple of factors that make the law a bit less alarming than it might appear at first glance.
First, astute commenter Shauna Sylvester was absolutely right to point out (under Reilly’s post) that the law is a political gesture directed towards the relatively small number of Shia Muslims in Afghanistan. As the Independent explains, the “rape law” is part of something called the Shia Family Law, which would apply only to the Shia minority. Most of Afghanistan’s Shia, in turn, are from small ethnic groups including particularly the Hazaras, a Persian-speaking people who are probably descended at least partly from Mongol invaders. Hazaras make up perhaps nine or ten percent of the population, well behind the Pashtuns and Tajiks, and apparently have a history of persecution at the hands of other Afghans. The Shia Family Law is being passed because Hamid Karzai has decided he will need more Hazara votes in this year’s presidential elections, so from one perspective the new laws represent a democratic, inclusive gesture. Their impact will also be limited to a small and atypical part of Afghanistan’s population, although a separate body of law for Sunni Muslims is said to be in the works.
Second, it’s still not clear what the Shia Family Law actually says, because there has been no official publication. According to the Independent, though:
The most controversial parts of the law deal explicitly with sexual relations. Article 132 requires women to obey their husband’s sexual demands and stipulates that a man can expect to have sex with his wife at least “once every four nights” when travelling, unless they are ill. The law also gives men preferential inheritance rights, easier access to divorce, and priority in court.
I’m not sure that a law that “requires women to obey their husband’s sexual demands” must necessarily permit a husband to compel obedience by force. In the Shia nation of Iran a wife who is sexually “disobedient”, in the same sense, simply forfeits her right to financial support. If Article 132 has a similar intent, this would be somewhat less sensational than news stories about “legalised rape” would suggest – although it would still be fairly distasteful, by Canadian standards. The same might be said for the other restrictions on female behaviour built into the law.
So how should Canada react to this? In my opinion, we should certainly tell Afghans in general and Hazaras in particular that we think the Shia Family Law is unfair and counterproductive. But after politely presenting our arguments, and listening to any reply that they might wish to make, we should step aside and let them run their own country.