Nelofer Pazira: Sharia law is not the real problem for Afghan women

Women don't leave home, not because of men but because they don't feel safe

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My phone has been ringing too many times these past few days – mostly journalists and producers calling to book an interview. I am an Afghan. The topic: "Sharia law in Afghanistan allows men to rape their wives." All of a sudden, there is an enormous interest in Afghan law. But all they are interested in is condemnation.

My favourite producer says: "We are looking for local outrage and you are our top choice." When I try to explain that I'm equally outraged at the way the media is treating this story, there is silence on the line. And when I say, what about context as well as outrage, she says: "Let me check to see if we have time in the show and I'll call you back right away." I never hear from her again.

I'll repeat the usual mantra: any law or practice that treats any member of a society, men or women, with prejudice should not be tolerated. But with the West's hysteria on this issue, I wonder whether we're not projecting our own fears of sharia on to what's unfolding in Afghanistan. In the West, we hear the word sharia and we tremble because all we know of Islamic law is the Taliban, the Danish cartoons affair and executions in Saudi Arabia.

In the case of Afghanistan, the new legislation will affect women of the Shia minority – about 5 per cent of the population. The majority of all Afghan women are in fact hostage to far more draconian practices, enshrined in customs and traditions that date back to pre-sharia days – and are in some cases contradictory to Islam.

Even in its conservative interpretation, Islam recognises women's rights to land ownership. It insists on the "consent" of both sexes when entering a marriage contract or sexual relations. What is branded as "sharia" for Shias in the legislature is basically giving Afghan men the right to control their wives, which is already practised widely.

While Hamid Karzai's government may call for the review of the law the attitude of Afghan men won't change with the re-wording of a legal document through external pressures, especially from the West.

Most Afghans suffer from lack of security. Afghan TV programmes break taboos by reporting frequent cases of rape and the abuse of young women. Powerful mafia gangs operate freely amid corruption. Most Afghan journalists working for one of the 14 independent television and radio stations risk their lives to report these stories; and the victims of these crimes and their families face social humiliation – in some cases retaliation and threats – by going public.

But there hasn't been a single protest in the West about these crimes which are affecting the lives of women every day – not a single expression of support for these victims who, of course, don't make it into the headlines; because we are too busy looking for "local outrage" in order to condemn the Afghan government.

This week more than 100 Afghan women from 34 provinces met in Kabul to discuss the situation of women in the country; they highlighted insecurity as the biggest impediment to their freedom and equality. Most women fear to leave their homes, to attend school or go to work – not because of their husbands, but because they don't feel safe. Their rights to education, freedom of movement and action are guaranteed in the Afghan constitution, but the gap between words and reality is too huge to be bridged simply by revising a few clauses in a legal document. Sure, we must fight to protect the legal rights of women. But we must also seek ways to bring about change so that legislation is relevant to the lives of women and men in Afghanistan. The majority of Afghans cannot read and write; an even greater majority don't go to the courts to resolve family and marriage problems. The few who are educated who might seek legal help are sceptical about the rule of law because of the corruption and lack of trust in the Afghan government and the judicial system.

This government has lost its legitimacy because most Afghans view Karzai as a Western puppet. Mr Karzai, of course, has been making concessions to conservatives to prove he is the leader of a sovereign state – in the hope this will help him win the next election. But causing him this international public embarrassment and forcing him to give in to even more Western dictates is undermining his already shrinking local popularity – let alone any chance of re-election.

By all means, help Afghan women. But spare me the hysteria.

The writer is an Afghan-Canadian journalist and film-maker. She starred in the award-winning film, Kandahar, loosely based on her own attempt to find a childhood friend in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan

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