Sometimes, pressure actually works

Bravo to the human rights activists around the world who muscled up in unison to obliterate one of the most backward laws passed by any country in recent times.

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai recently signed into law a bill that approved of marital rape, stipulated that the wife "is bound to preen for her husband as and when he desires," barred wives from "leaving the house without the permission of the husband" unless in a medical or other emergency and approved child marriage with girls legally able to marry once they began to menstruate.

The law, governing Afghanistan’s Shia population (one-third of the country) forced women back to Taliban-era (read that, stone age) oppression. And that was just the beginning.

After a worldwide storm of protest, Karzai apparently put the kibosh on the law almost as quickly as he signed it. Protests were communicated to him by a wide array of international figures from Muslim and nondenominational human rights groups, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to Afghan women living abroad.

The British Guardian Online reported:

"At a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague, Scandinavian foreign ministers publicly challenged the Afghan leader to respond to a report on the new law in yesterday’s Guardian, and the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was reported to have confronted Karzai on the issue in a private meeting. At a press conference after the meeting, Clinton made clear US displeasure at the apparent backsliding on women’s rights. ‘This is an area of absolute concern for the United States. My message is very clear. Women’s rights are a central part of the foreign policy of the Obama administration,’ she said."

The protests worked. And now the law, which was a pre-election sop by Karzai, (he’s up for reelection this summer) to curry favor with conservative Shia party leaders is not going to be enacted or enforced.

But the United States and other international groups interested in the fate of Afghan women should not stop with this success. They should keep on pressing and move Afghan’s women’s rights to the top of the country’s agenda. Without vigilance, there will be retrogression, as the marital rape law’s enactment shows. The Women’s Media Center last week posted an online piece by New York University professor Patricia DeGennaro who teaches at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has spent significant time working in Afghanistan. In her post, she referred to the then-ongoing conference on Afghanistan and said, "…Afghan women are conspicuously missing. It seems that international rhetoric for women does not translate into any vigorous action."

She’s right that it should. And with U.S. troops and resources in Afghanistan, we have the clout to make sure women participate in government there in numbers equal to their percentage of the population. This is one instance where women’s rights are truly critical to the United State’s military mission’s success. The Taliban has been bombing schools for girls while trying to retake parts of the country. Last weekend a video was posted on the Internet of a 17-year old girl being mercilessly beaten in public by the Taliban in the Swat valley of the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan. We all know the Taliban bases its training camps in Northwest Pakistan whence it sends troops into Afghanistan.

Karzai’s first reaction to Western dismay over his signing of the marital rape law was to excuse the publicity as a "misunderstanding" by Western media of the true intent and effect of the law. It was only when the pressure continued that he gave up and barred its enforcement.

Unless women participate equally in Afghanistan’s democracy, government and peace negotiations, the Taliban won’t get the message that it can no longer control and oppress Afghan’s female population. Oppressing Afghan women is part and parcel of the Taliban’s war effort. Clinton should make clear that U.S. military and financial support of democracy in Afghanistan depends on that country defeating the Taliban on that front. Something tells me she will.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)