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Women's rights on paper only
Afghanistan's sham of a constitution

By Nicole Colson | January 9, 2004 | Page 7

AS AFGHAN leaders approved a new constitution last week, the U.S. mainstream media hailed a "new era of democracy" in Afghanistan. But there's very little democratic about life in the "new" Afghanistan--and the new constitution is being held together by threads.

At several points, in fact, the loya jirga--the tribal council called to decide the constitution--nearly broke down altogether, with delegates threatening to walk out over questions of the strength of the presidency and the country's official languages. Insiders say that the constitution was eventually approved only because of intense pressure from the U.S. and United Nations (UN).

Under the new constitution, there is to be a directly elected president and a two-chamber national assembly, with the first elections being held in June. The country will now be known as the "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."

There is to be a system of civil law, but no law will be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of Islam, a provision that many believe opens the door to the introduction of Sharia law--the strict Islamist code that punishes crimes with executions and amputations.

The Bush administration will no doubt trumpet the fact that the new constitution gives women recognition as equal citizens and sets aside 25 percent of the seats of the lower house of parliament for women. But it isn't likely to comment on the fact that most of these seats will remain unoccupied--since Afghan women remain under constant threat from warlords and even Taliban leaders who today are in power through much of the country.

During the loya jirga, for example, Malalai Joya, a female delegate from the western province of Farah, where women face some of the worst abuses, was temporarily thrown out when she complained that the same thugs and warlords from the old days are in charge in the "new" Afghanistan.

"They were the ones who destroyed our country," Joya shouted from the floor as she was heckled. "They should be tried in international and national courts. If our poor people forgive these criminals, history will never forgive them, their criminal activities have all been recorded in history."

Joya's microphone was cut off as dozens of male delegates rushed toward assembly chair Sighbatullah Mojadeddi's platform, some shouting "Down to Communism!" and "Kick the Communists out of the tent." Mojadeddi had Joya removed, later telling reporters that it was for her own safety--because she had been "impolite" during the debate.

In other words, women in the "new" Afghanistan have rights on paper--and nowhere else. That was confirmed by an October report from Amnesty International, which states that Karzai's U.S.-installed government has "proved unable to protect women."

"The risk of rape and sexual violence by members of armed factions and former combatants is still high," the report says. "Forced marriage, particularly of girl children, and violence against women in the family are widespread in many areas of the country. These crimes of violence continue with the active support or passive complicity of state agents, armed groups, families and communities...

"The criminal justice system is too weak to offer effective protection of women's right to life and physical security, and itself subjects them to discrimination and abuse. Prosecution for violence against women, and protection for women at acute risk of violence is virtually absent."

In September, Karzai's government even upheld a law passed in the mid-1970s that prohibits married women from attending high school classes. As a result, as many as 2,000 to 3,000 women have been expelled from school.

Beyond the issue of women's rights is the power vacuum in the country that threatens to topple Karzai. Heavy fighting between rival militias rages on in the north of Afghanistan, despite UN and U.S. attempts to disarm the factions.

In the south, the brutality of U.S. forces hunting for al-Qaeda militants is causing more and more resentful locals to turn against Karzai's government--as when U.S. forces twice mistakenly bombed Afghan children playing in fields in December, killing 15.

As for the U.S.-backed Karzai, his presidency is largely impotent outside of the capital of Kabul. In fact, the country's security situation is so unstable that following approval of the constitution, Karzai arrived to congratulate the assembly by helicopter--opting to fly the one mile from his office rather than drive because of fears of an assassination attempt. For Karzai, the question is how long he can hold on to power--and what will the Bush administration do to help keep him in place.

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