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ROME, Apr 16 2009 (IPS) - When news broke about the new Shi’ite Personal Status Law in Afghanistan, many were appalled by the fact that it legalises rape within marriage. “Marital Rape Legal in Afghanistan”, screamed the headlines, and we all reacted with shock and horror. On closer inspection, however, the law is actually much worse than we had all thought.

The real problem with this law is not the provisions on marital rape, abhorrent as they are, but the fact that it officially relegates women to second class citizens. The law legitimises restrictions on anything and everything women do, including where they go and whom they visit; it legalises their subjugation to the whims of others; it denies them a say in decisions about their children; and it denies them access to education and health care.

This barefaced denial of human rights needs to be condemned loudly, unequivocally and universally. Thankfully, taking advantage of the International Conference on Afghanistan in The Hague and the NATO Summit (3-4 April), world leaders did just that, and the impact has been felt in Kabul. Following resounding condemnation both within and outside Afghanistan of the Shi’ite Personal Status Law, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has declared his intention to have it reviewed.

The story does not end here, however. Now that the international meetings are off the front pages, we cannot let this issue slide into obscurity. This is why No Peace Without Justice and the Transnational Radical Party have launched an international appeal to put the Afghan authorities on notice that the world will continue to watch and that Afghan women will not be sold out for the sake of appeasement.

Some say this law is the price for gaining the support of hardline Shi’ites in the tough presidential elections later this year. But while a new wind of ‘reconciliation’ and containment is blowing in western chanceries and think-tanks, we shall never accept to pay for a political truce within Afghanistan with the sacrifice of fundamental rights of women.

For the rights of Afghan women to be treated with contempt in everyday life is bad enough, but for those violations to be codified and legitimised and wilfully traded for short-term political gain is truly abominable. Our servicemen should not fight and die in Afghanistan in order to help restore the restrictive, discriminatory practices that existed under Taliban rule.

It is not enough to say, as many have been at pains to point out, that because this law only applies to the country’s Shi’ite minority, it will only affect a small percentage of Afghanistan’s female population. If anything, this makes it even more discriminatory, and its adoption demands action from all women (and men), whether or not they are Shia, whether or not they are Afghani.

Indeed, the world should not be mildly offended by this development but rather incandescent with rage. As long as one woman anywhere in the world is not recognised as the final arbiter of her own personal integrity, all women suffer. The violations it seeks to enshrine in law ought to inspire horror and outrage in every person.

The new legislation is not only a direct violation of international law, it is also a contravention of a host of articles in the Afghan Constitution, not least the provision declaring that the “liberty and dignity of human beings are inviolable”. Yes, the Constitution allows the application of different personal law for Shi’ites, but that is not a blank cheque to sign away the basic fundamental human rights of Shi’ite women or men. Every law in Afghanistan still needs to respect the Constitution and international law, including the provisions outlawing discrimination against women. This law does not.

Despite the announcement that the law will be revised, now is not the time for complacency. This positive news from Kabul is, quite simply, not positive enough. Now is the time to maintain our perseverance: sign the international appeal, voice your opinion to your elected officials and to the Afghan authorities, take innovative, nonviolent action. The women of Afghanistan deserve no less than our total, unflinching support. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Emma Bonino is vice-president of the Italian Senate. The international appeal is available on http://www.npwj.org

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