April 15, 2009
New York Times
Women, Extremism and Two Key States
There have been two recent reminders of the cost of extremism. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai signed a law that effectively sanctions marital rape. In Pakistan, a video surfaced of the Taliban in the Swat Valley publicly flogging a young woman screaming for mercy. Pakistan’s government compounded the indignity on Monday by giving in to Taliban demands and formally imposing Shariah law on the region.
Such behavior would be intolerable anywhere. But the United States is heavily invested in both countries, fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban and financing multibillion-dollar military and development programs. The cases represent an officially sanctioned brutality that violates American values and international human rights norms. They also sabotage chances of building stable healthy societies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, particularly venal politics are at work. Mr. Karzai, whose popular support plummeted because of government ineptitude and corruption, is running for re-election in August. The new law, which affects family matters for the Shiite minority, seems a bald, particularly creepy, pander.
It says of Shiite women: Unless she is ill, “a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband.” That is licensed coercion.
If let stand, we fear such rules — reminiscent of decrees issued when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s — could also have a negative impact on laws affecting the majority Sunni population. Instead of defending the law as he did, Mr. Karzai must ensure that it is rewritten to reflect principles of freedom and dignity for women.
In Pakistan, the video of the woman’s flogging proves the bankrupt nature of the army’s strategy. Failing to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield, the army tried to appease them with a peace deal in February. It ceded the insurgents control of Swat, 100 miles from Islamabad, and allowed free rein for their repressive ways. The woman was beaten after declining a Taliban fighter’s marriage proposal, the head of the Peshawar Bar Association told reporters.
After resisting for weeks, President Asif Ali Zardari capitulated to political pressure and signed a regulation formally imposing Islamic law on Swat as part of the peace deal. We seriously doubt this will bring peace, and it will certainly not make life better for Pakistani women. It is unlikely that Mr. Zardari’s wife — the slain former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto — would have ever consented to such a craven sellout.
The one encouraging sign came last week, when Pakistan’s recently reinstated chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, publicly rebuked the attorney general and other officials at a court hearing for inaction in the flogging case. We hope this was not just grandstanding and that he and his supporters will find a way to make as powerful a case for this victim’s rights as they did for Mr. Chaudhry’s return to the Supreme Court.
Many Pakistanis have wasted their time decrying the video as a conspiracy intended to defame Islam and Pakistan. They should be demanding that the army — Pakistan’s strongest and most functional institution — defend against an insurgency that increasingly threatens the state. Like their military and political leaders, Pakistan’s people are in a pernicious state of denial about where the real danger lies.