SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As the presidential election season arrived in Afghanistan, the incumbent Hamid Karzai sprang a nasty surprise on the country’s Hazara Shiite women by signing on to a “rape law” that legitimizes non-consensual sex in wedlock. Designed to placate arch conservative Shiite clerics, the law compels women of this sect to “be bound to give a positive response” to the sexual desires of their husbands, illness being the only extenuation. It also legalizes child marriages of Shiite girls and restricts the freedom of the community’s women to venture outdoors without “permission of the husband.”

Thanks to the mobilization of Afghan activists and their supporters around the world, the Karzai government has now been forced to put the law on “hold.” The reason Karzai could not scrap it altogether was fear that it would cost him Shiite votes in the coming elections. The consolidation of votes into different religious and sectarian “banks” whose keys are held by self-appointed custodians of morality (the class of mullahs) is not unique to Afghanistan, but it is a particularly sad commentary of a regime claiming to be fighting the Taliban’s religious extremism going down the same path of Islamism for political expediency.

The rape law is not the first instance when Karzai traded the dignity of Afghan people on the question of gender equality with “peace” and “reconciliation” in the war-ridden country. In 2008, a 23-year-old student journalist Sayed Pervez Kambaksh was sentenced to death by a secret court of three mullahs in Balkh province for blasphemy. The charge against him was of circulating an essay on women’s rights that questioned verses in the Quran. Kambaksh had merely downloaded the document from the Internet, but it was enough to enrage state-sanctioned clerics, who are no less brutal in their vision of an “Islamic society” than the Taliban.

When an international media campaign to free Kambaksh took off, Karzai promised that justice would be done “in the right way.” Typical of the president’s “ways,” it was a parrying tactic. Kambaksh only managed to get his sentence commuted to 20 years of imprisonment. An appeal to the Afghan Supreme Court yielded no relief as it ruled against him without even hearing his defense. For a relatively new political and judicial system being built haphazardly since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, Karzai could have intervened personally to free Kambaksh and set a bold secular precedent. But the “law” — codified to harass ordinary Afghans and perpetuate super suppression of women in the name of Islam — had to take its course because the regime was afraid of a backlash that strengthens the Taliban.

Even before the sadistic logic of electoral vote “banks” kicked in, Karzai had parceled out power and state patronage to zealous warlords who imposed a reign of sexual terror in their fiefdoms across the country. In 2005, the poetess Nadia Anjuman was beaten to death by her husband in Herat, courtesy the assurance of pro-Kabul warlords who guaranteed the man that he would never be prosecuted. Millions of Afghan women are being battered with no recourse due to the concordat between the Karzai government and the mullahs, which is seen as a bulwark against the cancerous Taliban. Karzai has often spoken about peace and negotiations with “moderate” Taliban to end the war, but his model of national reconciliation perpetuates the war against the women of Afghanistan.

A parallel horror against women is unfolding across the Durand Line in Pakistan, where the “secular” government of President Asif Ali Zardari has been colluding with mullahs and the Pakistani Taliban to brutalize women in Swat Valley. As a demonstration of how Shariah law practically works, a horrifying video has come to light in which Pakistani Taliban enforcers surround a teenage girl, pin her to the ground, and whip her ferociously. Her “crime” was to step out of home with a man who was not her relative.

When Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani ordered an immediate post-hoc inquiry to control the public-relations fiasco, an “Islamic judge” and a local state official prevailed upon the victim to deny the flogging. However, Muslim Khan, the local Pakistani Taliban leader, had no qualms in initially accepting that such incidents are routine in Swat and that it was “necessary” to punish the girl publicly to restore order.

Although the incident propelled thousands of Pakistani women to the streets outside Swat, many protesters had to cover their faces for fear of being identified and persecuted. So Islamized has the civil society in Pakistan become that counter-movements wedded to fundamentalist parties have also occupied public spaces to praise imposition of Shariah in Swat and vow proliferation of kangaroo courts manned by misogynist clerics all over the country. With the military and civilian establishments of Pakistan interdependent on the Pakistani Taliban, pathological forms of policing “misbehavior” of women are burgeoning.

The dictatorship of legalized rape and female servitude is being forced upon people in Pakistan and Afghanistan with the justification that it is prescribed under Shariah and is a prerequisite for “peace.” The Bollywood film star Shahrukh Khan recently commented that there is an “Islam of Allah and the Islam of the mullah.” In Pakistan and Afghanistan, though, the mullah has ensured that pampering him is the only pathway to Allah and peace. Pending a comprehensive defeat of “mullahcracy,” irrespective of whether the U.S. military stays or exits from the region, the war on women will not cease.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York. © 2009 OpinionAsia

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