Published in June 2010, “Family Law Reform and Women’s Rights in Muslim Countries: Perspectives and Lessons Learned” is a seminar report of the third international conference hosted by Rights & Democracy from February 23-24, 2010 in Kabul. Rights & Democracy is a non-partisan, independent Canadian institution that seeks to promote democratic development and the defence of human rights.
Since its establishment as an Islamic republic in 2004, Afghanistan requires that its family law respect the rights and responsibilities of both men and women as described in Islamic law, or Shariah. Additionally, it must respect Afghanistan’s national and international human rights commitments, including its constitutional provisions recognizing the equality of women and men, as well as its accession (without reservations) to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Seeking to honour these commitments has posed serious challenges for the country’s legislators, its institutions, and civil society at large, as the long years of strife in Afghanistan have had ruinous cultural and social effects on Afghan women.
Rights & Democracy’s involvement in Afghanistan has been to support the reform of Afghanistan’s family law, through the creation of the Family Law Drafting Committee. The Committee has conducted extensive research of Shariah-based arguments for reforming the law, including analysis of other Muslim countries’ experiences and drawing comparisons with other Afghan laws affecting family matters and women’s rights
As part of this research, Rights & Democracy has hosted three conferences in as many years in order to encourage debate and build awareness. The first conference, in 2008, saw speakers with expertise on the Moroccan and Egyptian family laws share their knowledge on the various articles of family laws. The 2009 conference coincided with the adoption of the Shia Personal Status Law by the Karzai government and thus provided an opportunity for participants to mobilize and strategize for the law’s revision. This year’s conference had Egyptian, Palestinian, and Moroccan experts come together with Afghan experts to present Shariah-based arguments that have been used to advocate for Family Law reform in other countries, or that should be used within Afghanistan.
The 2010 conference opened with brief remarks highlighting the perilous conditions women presently face in Afghanistan, indicating the importance of developing fair, accessible and effective judicial institutions. International support for the full the full spectrum of women’s rights in Afghanistan was expressed alongside acknowledgement of the positive impact that such discussions and debate have had on change and reform in Afghanistan.
The seminar was attended by numerous experts who presented on a wide range of issues and experiences with regards to reforming family law in accordance with Islam. Seminars held during the conference included “Reforming Family Laws”, “Three ways to divorce: Talāq, Tafrīq and Khul’”, “Alimony, child custody, polygamy and consent to marriage”, and “Advocacy for Family Law.” These seminars had additional presentations that addressed specific areas for reform (see below).
The seminar and its report provide a clear view of not only the challenges facing women’s Rights in Afghanistan but also, and perhaps more importantly, the efforts and initiatives presently underway to address said challenges. Zia Moballegh, the Acting Country Director for Rights & Democracy Afghanistan, emphasized that the seminar discussions revealed the need for further dialogue so that women’s rights activists could continue their efforts. Referring to the thirty years of violence in Afghanistan’s recent history, Moballegh stated that “(t)he only path to meaningful solutions for Afghanistan’s real problems is substantive discussion and debates of the issues.” By focusing their initiatives to promote and enhance dialogue on sensitive issues, the efforts of Rights & Democracy and its partners are prime examples of this new path for Afghanistan. Despite facing many hardship and challenges, this approach is already delivering very positive results, as evidenced by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs submission of the draft reformed Family Law (which was prepared by the Family Law Drafting Committee) to the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Justice. Although supporters of the draft law are aware that “(m)uch support will be needed from all sectors of Afghan civil society to ensure the proposed reform remains respectful of women’s rights through the legislative process…”it is clear that their efforts are crucial initial steps to securing women’s rights and reforming Family Law in Afghanistan.