By Mina Habib
As Afghanistan prepares to mark International Women’s Day on March 8, rights groups have expressed concern at a set of restrictive measures proposed by the country’s Council of Religious Scholars. Other commentators suspect the Islamic clerics of trying to win over insurgent groups like the Taleban by publicly espousing conservative views.
The 150-member council issued a “code of conduct” last week calling for segregation of the sexes in the workplace and in education, and barring women from travelling unless accompanied by a close male relative.
President Hamid Karzai appeared to back the scholars, stressing their knowledge of religious matters, and claiming that their code was not discriminatory.
The announcement angered Afghan women like Yalda, who works for a foreign organisation, and said clerics would do better to speak out against real abuses and injustices.
“Are the killings of innocent people, mutilations, violence, bribery, theft of state and private land, drug smuggling and other crimes in accordance with the provisions of Koran?” she asked. “If not, why doesn’t the Council of Religious Scholars issue a declaration on those issues? Why does it focus only on women?”
Latifa Sultani, coordinator of the women’s rights section at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, AIHRC, said the proposals, which include allowing men to beat their wives under certain circumstances, were troubling.
“We are concerned about the increasing growth of fundamentalist thought,” she said. “Women already face various restrictions on a daily basis.”
Sultani said the AIHRC would be seeking a meeting with the Islamic council in the near future.
Last month, Afghanistan’s ministry of information and culture called for female TV presenters to avoid heavy makeup and to wear headscarves. Some attributed the instruction to pressure from religious scholars.
The Council of Religious Scholars is backing government-led peace negotiations with insurgent groups, and some observers conclude that its new public stance on women’s rights is part of a policy of appeasement.
“In view of the current political situation, I believe this declaration is of political rather than practical intent,” political analyst Mahmoud Saiqal said, arguing that the government wanted to “show the Taleban that their demands for Islamic precepts to be implemented is acceptable, and that they should trust it and continue with the negotiations”.
Wida Ahmad, head of the Afghanistan Social Adjudicators’ Association, also suspects the clerics of attempting to engage with the Taleban in pursuit of reconciliation. But she said their proposals would never become reality.
“Over the past ten years, Afghan women have achieved political maturity and they aren’t going to accept this kind of pressure,” she said. “There are still some people in government who have Taleban-like ideas, and they are against all kinds of female participation in various areas of public life, but their efforts will be futile.”
Shahla Farid, a lecturer in law at Kabul university, noted that the ideas set out by the clerics ran counter to the Afghan constitution, which proclaims equal rights for men and women.
“Why doesn’t the Council of Religious Scholars issue declarations and regulations when Afghan women are sexually abused, forced into marriage, and have their civil and Islamic rights violated?” she asked. “The council is always trying to harass women. It has never done anything to ensure the rights of women in society.”
IWPR called Maulavi Qiamuddin Kashaf, who chairs the clerical council, for further information about the statement, but he refused to comment.
Keramatullah Sediqi, director of Islamic research at the ministry for the Hajj and religious affairs, said that while the statement was founded on Islamic law, it would be impractical to enact it.
“In my opinion, implementing this decision is impossible,” he said. “Many accuse the government of failing to implement Islamic precepts, and I think the government wants to respond to such accusations via this move, and thereby to create a dialogue between itself, the public and its opponents.”
Afghanistan’s ministry of women’s affairs refused to comment on the matter, with deputy minister Mozhgan Mostafawi saying preparations for International Women’s Day meant she had no time to give an interview.
Others played down the significance of the scholars’ statement.
Hawa Alam Nuristani, a former member of parliament, said the proposals should not be taken too seriously.
“Qiamuddin Kashaf has been in many meetings with us, and is someone who has always supported women’s rights,” she said.
Farid, a university student, said that he believed the council’s new stance was mere posturing ahead of the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan in 2014, and was driven by fear of what would happen to the Islamic clerics on the council once the Taleban gained the upper hand.
“The Taleban aren’t stupid enough to believe these symbolic declarations,” he added.
Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kabul. This article was published at IWPR’s ARR Issue 426.