There are a handful of them at every women’s rights gathering in Afghanistan: men.
Even though crowds of men threw stones and shouted insults at women protesting a law that critics say legalizes marital rape, a few men marched and chanted alongside the women this week.
These are the men — many of them politicians and intellectuals — who are taking up the battle for women’s rights and calling for change in this patriarchal society. Activists say men’s support for women’s rights is vital in a country where men hold sway in government and in families.
Many people working on women’s issues in Afghanistan agree: to empower women, you first need to enlist the men.
Sherwali Wardak, who runs women’s literacy and business training programs, said the key to getting women involved is to persuade the men in their lives to allow it.
“The most important factor of working with women is to encourage the men to allow their women to enroll in the rehabilitation or development project,” he said.
Wardak said some men won’t let their wives or daughters go to training centers he sets up. And he says he’s received threats.
“They write, ‘Close this project because it is working for Christianity,’” he said.
It is a common accusation of those who support women’s rights in Afghanistan — that the advocates are stooges of the Christian West.
On Wednesday, the crowds of men who swamped men and women protesting a law they say legalizes marital rape were full of vitriol. The law gives a husband the right to demand sex every four days and regulates when a woman can leave the house. The law is not being enforced pending a judicial review ordered by the president.
“Death to you dogs!” and “Death to the slaves of the Christians!” the men shouted at the protesters. Some threw small stones at the demonstrators.
There is a degree of risk for men who support women’s freedoms in this conservative country. In Afghanistan, anyone who opposes the clerics who back such laws can quickly become a political and social pariah.
But some male lawmakers and Cabinet ministers have denounced the law — along with many prominent women. Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta drafted a petition against the law that was signed by more than 100 officials and public figures, including six government ministers and 22 lawmakers.
Spanta said he might have more signatures but he wanted to get the petition out quickly.
The minister of women’s affairs did not sign the petition. A spokesman for her office said she was waiting for the review to be completed before taking a position.
“They can write about me what they will but I will work for equality,” Spanta said. “I will sign a declaration like this even if I am alone in this country to do that. I know this is a dangerous approach.”
President Hamid Karzai has long been a vocal supporter of women’s rights, but he signed the controversial bill into law. His administration has said Karzai was not aware of its full implications.
Zia Moballegh, who advises the government on family law reform, said the justice minister told him not to expect the review to be completed before the end of Karzai’s current term. That adds fuel to accusations that Karzai signed the law to court conservative votes in the August election.
Justice Minister Mohammad Sarwar Danish said no timetable has been established for the review and he would not predict when it might be completed.