Afghan Feminist killed in Kandahar

Sitara Achakzai, a female provincial official known for fighting for women's rights was gunned down by four Taliban on motorcycles in Kandahar today.

See Feminist killed in Afghanistan.

New Afghanistan Law Rapes Women's Rights

FEMINISM/POLITICS - An effort by ministers from the United States, Canada and other members of the 42-nation coalition fighting in Afghanistan to put an optimistic face on the war's progress came close to collapse yesterday when Afghan President Hamid Karzai was publicly accused of supporting a law that dramatically limits the rights of women.

Attended in total by 72 countries and organizations interested in rebuilding the country, The Hague summit was meant to be a "big tent" show of support for U.S. President Barack Obama's new Afghanistan war plans. But by day's end the participants had been forced to confront the reality of a government riddled with corruption and committed to legislating sexual inequality.

According to United Nations organizations that have seen it, a law backed by the Karzai government would legalize rape within marriage and would forbid women from going to the doctor or leaving their home without their husband's protection.

It also reportedly grants custody of children only to fathers or grandfathers.

When the law was brought to the attention of the summit by the Finnish Foreign Minister yesterday afternoon, forcing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to back away from her optimistic message, it marked the culmination of a day in which public statements of progress in Afghanistan were contradicted by private expressions of deep concern.

"Things are going worse for us than they have during the past four or five years - the Taliban controls more of our territory than before, and we have made no progress at all on corruption," a Canadian official said moments before Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told the summit that he was "immediately able to see the results and impacts of our efforts" in Afghanistan.

The rape-law allegations were an especially severe blow to a conference meant to be what Ms. Clinton called a "blank slate," in which the 42 countries in the coalition would commit themselves with renewed vigour to the eight-year-old UN-mandated campaign, with support from 4,000 additional U.S. troops and a long-term commitment from Mr. Obama.

Faced with questions about the law yesterday afternoon, Ms. Clinton expressed dismay. She is said to have upbraided Mr. Karzai, whose presidency has been backed and promoted by the United States for years, in a private meeting.

"This is an area of absolute concern for the United States," she told reporters. "My message is very clear. Women's rights are a central part of the foreign policy of the Obama administration."

Officials from other countries had even more trouble hiding their disappointment with a government that was meant to signal a turn away from the sexual oppression of the ousted Taliban regime.

In Ottawa, Trade Minister Stockwell Day, chairman of the cabinet committee on Afghanistan, suggested that if the reports are true, Canada's support for the Afghan government will be affected.

"If these prove to be true, this will create serious problems for the government of Canada, for the people of Canada," Mr. Day said. "The onus is upon the government of Afghanistan to live up to its human-rights responsibilities, absolutely including the rights of women. If there is any wavering on this point ... this will create serious difficulties, serious problems for the government of Canada."

Spousal sexual assault is an offence in most parts of the Western world, and became a crime in Canada in 1983. In its 1993 declaration on the elimination of violence against women, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights established marital rape as a human-rights violation.

For many officials, the reports of Mr. Karzai's support for the law making rape exclusively an extramarital crime mark the culmination of years of frustration with the corruption, inertia and culture of impunity for which his government is known. One Canadian official said that Mr. Karzai no longer has the support of any country fighting in Afghanistan, but nothing can be said in public because he is likely to win the presidential election scheduled for this summer.

A British cabinet minister was more explicit. "We are caught in the Catch-22 that the Afghans obviously have the right to write their own laws," Lord Malloch Brown, the foreign secretary for Africa and Asia, told the Guardian newspaper yesterday. "But there is dismay. The rights of women was one of the reasons the U.K. and many in the West threw ourselves into the struggle in Afghanistan. It matters greatly to us and our public opinion."

With 2,800 soldiers fighting in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, Canada has suffered the highest casualty rate of any coalition member, and has an important leadership role in the country's troubled south. Mr. Cannon was able to proclaim a Canadian victory in having built a new agreement between Pakistani and Afghan border officials, after talks organized by Canada. But there was a distinct sense that Canada is no longer being treated as a major coalition partner now that both the governing Conservatives and the opposition Liberals have made it clear that they will withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011.

Canada did not share in the major international development of the day, a public diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran for the first time in 30 years. Signalling a possible rapprochement between Iran and the West, Iran sent a mid-level official to the meeting and held talks in which Tehran agreed to co-operate with drug-eradication schemes in Afghanistan and allow non-military supplies to be sent across its borders - in both cases solving difficult logistical problems for the coalition.

Afghan Bride says Indian husband is a bigamist

FEMINISM - In recent years Indian women have been assaulted by so-called "moral police" for going to pubs. Meanwhile Sabra Ahmadzai, a 20-year-old Afghan woman, is being championed by women's groups for pursuing her rights.

Two years ago, Ahmadzai married an Indian army doctor who was assigned to a Kabul military hospital in Afghanistan. Twenty days after the marriage, he returned to India, vowing to come back for her. Six months later he phoned in July 2007 and informed Ahmadzai he had a wife and children back home and was never going to return.

"He told me I was young and beautiful and should go ahead and get married again," says Ahmadzai.

Sabra Ahmadzai decided to go to India and file a criminal complaint against him.

Her case has become a cause célèbre – featured in daily newspapers and on TV in both India and Afghanistan. She has even met with India's home affairs minister and Afghanistan's ambassador to India.

And she has thousands of supporters. A recent demonstration by her supporters blocked traffic for five hours in New Delhi.

India is a very conservative country, slow to change. Dowry, female bondage and forced prostitution are common in some parts of India, especially rural areas. But a growing middle class is rethinking traditional attitudes.

In Kabul, Ahmadzai was scorned – even though village elders and her family had approved of her marriage to the physician. "After he left, women said I was a stigma and should take poison," Ahmadzai says. "Boys said they would marry me for 20 days, too. I decided to do something about it."

So she borrowed $3,300 and boarded a plane to India to find her delinquent husband. She found her husband in the Himalayan town of Pithoragarh, a two-day trip from Delhi.

Over the past two months, her case has been keenly watched and has stoked furious debates both about women's rights and the conduct of Indian soldiers abroad.

"People say there's no more need for a women's movement, but cases like Sabra's remind us we have a raison d'être," says Kavita Krishnan, general secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association. "This is still a country where a chief minister recently stood up and criticized women who go to pubs. And it's still a place where the army protects its own against a woman like Sabra."

Ahmadzai met the 40-year-old Pant when she was helping out as a translator at the hospital where he worked. "This man three times came to my family to ask to marry me," she says.

"The first time, my father said it would not be right for me to marry outside our religion." But Pant pledged to convert to Islam and changed his name to Himmat Khan to appease Ahmadzai's father.

"My family eventually said I should do this because he had treated so many of our sick children and this was the right thing to do," Ahmadzai continues.

Essentially the man married her only so he could cheat on his wife.

But after she caught up to him in India she gave him three choices: she could move in with his family in India; his Indian family could move with them to Kabul; or he could travel to Kabul and grant her a divorce.

"He said no to all three and just wanted to give me some money," Ahmadzai says.

Days later, she filed a police complaint. Under Indian law, Pant faces as many as 10 years in prison if convicted of bigamy.

Pant now denies he ever married Ahmadzai and says the wedding photos and videos she has provided are photo-shopped fakes.

"But this will not go away. I will get justice," says Ahmadzai.