Western attention has focused once again on the plight of women in Afghanistan, as the result of the Shia Family Law, passed by Afghan president Hamid Karzai in March. The law, which gives Shia husbands enormous legal powers over their wives, provoked 300 women to mount an almost-unprecedented demonstration outside a madrassa run by one of Afghanistan’s most powerful Shia clerics, Mohamad Asif Mohseni, on 15 April.
Nelofer Pazira, Afghan-Canadian film-maker and journalist, was a rare voice of sanity amidst the Western frenzy on this topic. Writing in the Independent (8 April), Pazira pointed out that legalized discrimination, while wrong, was irrelevant to the vast majority of Afghan women, who either have no recourse to the courts or have no confidence in them.
She also pointed out that just as the hysteria about the Shia Family Law was building, “more than 100 Afghan women from 34 provinces met in Kabul to discuss the situation of women in the country”. The conclusion of the conference was that “they highlighted insecurity as the biggest impediment to their freedom and equality,” something that Western commentators and politicians do not want to face up to.
While there is enormous goodwill in the West towards Afghan women, there is not a corresponding willingness to let Afghan women set the priorities in their struggle for freedom and equality. Nelofer Pazira remarks: “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.”