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Afghan Women Protest Restrictive Law

April 16, 2009

The New York Times has a story about women protesting a new law passed in Afghanistan to regulate relationships between Shiite men and women. In news reports around the world, it has been referred to as the law which “legalized rape” because it prohibits a woman from rejecting sexual overtures from her husband. It also requires, among other things, that a woman dress up for her husband if he requires. The law was written with the help of an influential Shiite cleric in the School of the Last Prophet, a madrasa. These schools, whose purpose is to teach the Koran, are often the center for the propagation of a fundamentalist or hard-line version of Islam. The female demonstrators were confronted by mostly male members of the madrasa who were shouting denunciations and yelling “whore” at the women gathered to oppose the law.

Afterward, when the demonstrators had left, one of the madrasa’s senior clerics came outside. Asked about the dispute, he said it was between professionals and nonprofessionals; that is, between the clerics, who understood the Koran and Islamic law, and the women calling for the law’s repeal who did not.

“It’s like if you are sick, you go to a doctor, not some amateur,” said the cleric, Mohammed Hussein Jafaari. “This law was approved by the scholars. It was passed by both houses of Parliament. It was signed by the president.”

In addition to the objectionable and possibly dangerous components of the law itself, the story was remarkable to me for the assertion by the cleric, all too common in dogmatic approaches to religion, that the truth as revealed by God can only be understood and interpreted for the masses by a select few. I suppose the revelation of God’s will would be more compelling as truth if it didn’t so often align completely with the wishes and privileges of the interpreters themselves.

The issue raised by the implementation of this law is not so much the negative impact of religion as it is the negative impact of unquestionable power. Those holding this type of power have the ability to impose consequences on the powerless without the need to exercise their power judiciously or to expose that exercise of power to scrutiny. This is the problem whenever fundamentalist ideology, be it fundamentalist Islam, Evangelical Christianity or extreme free-market capitalism, gains a power position. It admits no criticism, because to criticize it is to find fault with perfection. And the exercise of power against critics, no matter how disproportionate or damaging, is justified as a means of protecting truth with a capital “T”.

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