Blog originally published by the Afghanistan Analysts Network here.
Damage Avoided, for Now?
posted: 18-05-2013 / by: Christine Roehrs and Ehsan Qaane
It took only 20 minutes on Saturday morning for the parliamentary debate on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law to get heated – and for the Speaker to abruptly stop discussion. He sent the EVAW law back to the Joint Commission of the Parliament, which is responsible for preparing draft laws, for more detailed study. Conservative MPs had stood up and condemned the entire EVAW law, calling it ‘ungodly’ and against Sharia Law. In the circumstances, women’s rights activists were relieved that what they had called a ‘risky game’ has ended without a lot more damage to the law. AAN’s Christine Roehrs and Ehsan Qaane report.
The EVAW law (see earlier AAN blogs here and here) is considered one of the greatest achievements for women’s rights of the past decade. Passed by Presidential Decree, it is legally binding, even though it was never presented to parliament (something it shares with many other laws). Those who drafted it, apparently in agreement with the president, had feared the conservative majority of MPs might reject it altogether or water it down so much that women would no longer have legal protection from a whole catalogue of crimes.
What women’s and human rights activists feared, did indeed happen today. In this morning’s debate, powerful conservatives castigated what activists see as the core achievements of the law. Five MPs stood up and said early marriage and forced marriage should not be considered crimes, shelters had to be abolished, women who wanted to work needed their husbands’ approval and the conditions for multiple marriages had to be got rid of. Only six MPs and the speaker had the chance to express themselves before the debate was stopped.
Qazi Nasir Ahmad Hanafi, an MP from Herat and head of the Legislative Commission of the parliament, wondered who in the parliament could possibly be against Sharia law. His meaning – that those who supported the EVAW law were anti-Islamic – might have quieted many MPs. Abdul Satar Khawasi, an MP from Parwan, said he was ‘very surprised’ that the president had issued the decree in the first place and hinted that the law was an attempt by foreigners to impose western values on Afghan society. Hafiz Mansur, an MP from Kabul, from Jamiat-e Islami, demanded: ‘Let’s go through one article after an other. Let’s approve of those we all agree upon – and delete those where we disagree.’
The conservative MPs who spoke up against the EVAW law, according to parliament observers, represent a strong group in parliament but because of the lack of official political party-based factions their numerical strength is difficult to measure. According to Reuters, most of those who spoke today are members of the influential Ulema Council. The group could have succeeded in changing the face of the EVAW law, with wide ranging consequences for women in the whole country, but, at this point, the Speaker of the House, Abdul Ra’uf Ibrahimi, elected from Kunduz and known to be close to Hezb-e Islami, stated the draft obviously needed more discussion and referred it back to the Joint Commission. He ended the debate, leaving behind some very angry MPs, some very relieved MPs and an altogether emotional house.
It looked like a diplomatic decision, although what made the speaker take it is not yet clear. Ibrahimi did show the house a letter to the plenum in which 20 MPs had requested the EVAW law not be discussed. He may also have reacted to the pleas and attempts, including behind the scenes lobbying, by Afghan and international activists to take the law off the agenda before the debate. He certainly stopped a debate which would have reflected badly on the president’s decision to sign the law and may have called into question his Islamic credibility.
The speaker’s move probably also saved Fawzia Kufi, head of the parliament’s Women’s Affairs Commission, from losing face. She had spearheaded the push for the debate – confident that the conservatives could be persuaded to pass the law -, despite significant pressure from Afghan and international human rights activists and the carefully worded objections of international NGOs and UN agencies. Kufi had been adamant that the law needed parliamentary approval, saying that the ‘prestige’ that came with it would help with the – indeed – poor implementation and send an important signal to the women of the country that they were supported by the Afghan parliament. What actually transpired in parliament and the past few emotional days may yet affect her relationship with other women’s rights activists and her presidential campaign.
Mrs. Kufi left the session right after the debate was closed before the next item on the agenda, and was not available for a statement.
Human rights activists are relieved that what they had called a ‘risky game’ has, at least for now, ended without a lot more damage to the law. ‘I am happy that the debate was stopped’, said Nerges Nehan, one of the most active opponents to the debate, ‘although is should have never come that far.’ Heather Barr from the Human Rights Watch said: ‘This seems like a good solution, at least for now. Obviously, it would have been great if the parliament had decided to pass the law as it is, but with the strong opposition among the MPs that never seemed likely anyway.’ The decision to postpone the vote left the law intact, she said, and allowed prosecutors, police and judges to keep implementing it, and women’s rights activists to push the government to be more active in enforcing it.
However, putting the EVAW up for parliamentary scrutiny has given conservative and religious circles some leverage to reiterate their arguments and influence the law’s content. This issue may not yet be over. The speaker of the house has asked the Joint Commission to start talks on the law again – this time including civil society and religious scholars. It looks like an unpromising mix of people to ask to find a workable solution.
Or, the new negotiations on the EVAW law may just quietly peter out. MPs may feel they have more important issues to deal with. Some have said it would be best if these talks were put on hold for a long while.
PS from the editor (source AFP):
Aimal Faizi, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman, told reporters that Karzai would not interfere in parliamentary affairs but suggested that the palace was working to boost support for the bill.
“It is up to them to pass it or not to pass it, but the president has recently met with representatives of women and civil society,” Faizi said.
“They have discussed these concerns that the women have in regard to this bill and what kind of support we can get from within the parliament.”
The palace’s twitter account reported the President already meeting ‘heads of some Wolesi Jirga commissions’ around 7:45 pm Kabul time.