Afghan Women Protest Against Discriminatory Law
April 16, 2009
By Golnaz Esfandiari
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
More than 200 women, mostly students, held a
protest on April 15 in Kabul against a controversial
Afghan law that imposes restrictions on Shi'ite women.
They were outnumbered by several hundred
counter-protesters, some of whom threw small stones at
the law's opponents.
But despite the clashes, women's rights activists
describe the protest as a significant step forward in
Afghan women's fight for equality.
It was the first public protest against the new law
that was approved by the Afghan parliament and signed
by President Hamid Karzai in March.
The law, strongly criticized by human rights groups
and Western countries, introduces restrictions on
women including barring them from leaving their homes
without the permission of their husbands. It also
obliges a wife to submit to her husband's sexual
demands whenever he wants.
Women's rights activists have said that it would
roll back what little rights Afghan women have gained
following the fall of the Taliban.
Karzai reportedly signed the law to win the support
of influential Shi'ite clerics in the August
But under increasing international pressure, he
subsequently ordered the law to be reviewed by the
Women's rights activists remain concerned, however,
and a number of them are planning to go to the
presidential palace on April 18 to ask for an
amendment of the law.
Shinkai Karokhil, an Afghan parliamentarian, told
RFE/RL that the April 15 protest is a significant act
of defiance and courage by Afghan women.
"It was the largest move by women. Not only Shi'ite
women but also Sunnis and even Hindu women were there;
the protest was held in the name of women. Despite all
the security issues Afghan men and women are facing,
women [came out]," Karokhil said.
"It's a significant move that shows the opposition
to laws that are being drafted unilaterally by some
men who want to impose them on women."
Afghan women participating in the April 15 protest
said the new law violates their right to freedom and
equal rights enshrined in the country's constitution.
One of the protesters, Adele Mohseni, a young
Hazara woman, spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
during the protest.
"According to the Article 3 of the constitution, no
one can take this right away from us. Some of the
gentlemen in the Ulama Council included a few articles
in the law based on the 'Tozih Masael' [Ayatollah
Khomeini's book of jurisdiction].There was no need to
include them in the law. They should be reviewed,"
Mohseni and some 200 other women began their
protest in front of a madrasah run by Ayatollah Asef
Mohseni, an influential Shi'ite cleric who supports
the law and played a key role in drafting it.
Some of the women chanted "We want equality", and
"We don't want Taliban laws." Others held banners that
said: "Yes, to law. No to reactionism", or "We want a
law that respects human dignity."
They were quickly surrounded by about 1,000 men and
women, who accused the protesting women of being the
"enemies of Islam" and "infidels."
A woman who supported the law said opponents have
not read the new law, which described as based on
Islam: "Since now our laws and our government is
Islamic and our constitution is based on Islam. We
can't say we don't accept this law."
Women's rights defender Soraya Sobrang, who was
among the protesters, says some of the
counterprotesters used violence against them and
police forces had to protect them.
"They attacked us and surrounded us; they threw
stones at us; some even spit on us. They insulted us;
they even brought some women with them. We had no way
out. But finally we made it to the parliament,"
Sobrang, who heads the women's division at
Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission,
told RFE/RL that some of the women protesters had
tears of joy when a handful of parliamentarians came
to talk to them and express their support for their
"It is a big achievement that finally the voice of
women was heard. They demonstrated that even when they
are few, there are people who want to listen to their
demands," Sobrang said.
She said the protest highlights the fact that the
notion of women's rights is slowly starting to take
hold in Afghanistan.
Nabila Wafeq, manager for the women's rights
division of the German NGO Medica Mondiale, said
Afghan women are becoming aware of their rights.
"It is positive that women have now enough courage
to come out in the street to make their voice heard
and demand their rights. These are forward steps for
women," Wafeq said.
Yet Wafeq, Sobrang, and other women's rights
activists believe there is still a long way to go for
Afghan women to achieve equal rights.
Insecurity and widespread violence against women
remain in Afghanistan, and many of problems they're
facing are ingrained in the country's deeply
patriarchal culture and conservative traditions.
The April 12 killing of women's rights advocate and
politician Sitara Achakzai in the Southern Province of
Afghanistan is just one example of the kind of threats
and intimidation Afghan women face.
Shukria Barekzai, an Afghan legislator, said that
achieving equal rights remains a "dream " for Afghan
"Maybe Afghan women will be able to reach it in, at
best, 20 years, because we need generations that are
ready to sacrifice themselves; new values need to be
institutionalized," Barekzai said.
"Of course,they should be based on the needs,
demands, and acceptance of Afghanistan's public