Walking into the Khatmul Nabeen Masjid Mosque, you can for a moment forget that you’re in Afghanistan. Beautiful buildings, walkways, flowerbeds and even a grass soccer pitch.
Young men and women, dressed in Muslim attire, walk around freely and with smiles. Smiles are a bit of a rarity in today’s Kabul, a polluted city of survival and despair, so this was both shocking and refreshing to me. We didn’t have an appointment but we were hoping to interview Mohammed Asif Mohseni, a conservative Shia cleric. He is said to be the man behind the controversial Shia state law, a law critics say strips Afghan Shia women of many rights. While security was checking our bags, one guard said that Mohseni had been waiting for us. I tried explaining that we did not have an appointment. Nonetheless, we were sent back to where Mohseni was waiting. Before entering the room I was cautioned by a guard to make sure none of my hair was showing below my headscarf. They were apologetic; one even asked me to zip up my sweater higher because too much of my neck was exposed. I complied, tucking in my hair and zipping my sweater as high as it could go. Now paranoid about the design holes in my scarf that exposed parts of my hair, I took off my shoes to enter.
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As we walked in, Mohseni, an older man with a white beard wearing a Shia-style turban called a “dulband” was sitting on a brown couch. He looked at the two men who brought us in and said, “These aren’t the two I was waiting for.” I explained that we just showed up for an interview because we did not have a number to reach him. He smiled and said, “I guess you are in luck.” Mohseni welcomed us and asked me to translate his warm welcome to our Scottish cameraman. As the interview started, I noticed that Mohseni avoided my eyes. I wondered if it was because I was female. I was also prepared for verbal attacks; a journalist friend told me that when he brought a western journalist to interview Mohseni a few days ago, the journalist ended up having more questions thrown at him than he was able to ask. But it didn’t take long for Mohseni to warm up and explain why Shia state law is just and a part of Islam. Those who don’t agree don’t understand it, he said. “The law … which I created I see as correct for both men and women,” he said. “We have given rights to both men and women, even better than rights given to women in the West. We give women more in this law.” I asked him about reports that if a woman does not comply in having sexual relations with her husband, then the husband can refuse to feed her. “Yes, I said that,” Mohseni said looking me in the eye. “When a couple marries, sex is a part of marriage, and they agree to that.” He went on to explain that a woman isn’t obliged to have sexual relations every single night or if she is told by her doctor to refrain. But otherwise it is her obligation and something she signed up for when she got married. He calls it the wife’s duty. Mohseni added that a wife wearing makeup “prevents a man from thinking about other women on the streets and he can just think of his wife.” He continued: “It is natural that women (wear makeup). Don’t they in the West Their women wear it on the streets and in shops. Women should put make-up on for their husbands as it will increase the love and attraction between the two.” The cleric also explained that a woman is not required to ask the permission of a man to leave the house if she has a job and needs to go to work. But they do need to get permission if they are leaving for other reasons. More importantly, he said, a couple needs to make clear the day they marry whether or not she will need permission to leave the home. If they disagree then they should not get married. “Like, you are working for CNN,” he said. “If your boss tells you, you’ll be working for 8 hours a day, then you’re responsible for that. It’s the same here. They both have to agree on it.” According to Mohseni, the West is imposing its beliefs on the Muslim world because they don’t understand. However, it’s not just people in the West who are opposed to this law. Many Afghans, men and women, have vehemently resisted it. They fear it will set women back after the progress that has been made in the last seven years. Sima Samar, head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, has been working for a year now, trying to amend certain articles within the law. “I feel discriminated. Clear-cut. I don’t feel equal in this country,” she told us. Samar said the law does not represent Islam. It blatantly contradicts the constitution of Afghanistan, which states that men and women are equal. Critics have labeled the law as “Talibanistic,” but Samar says even many of the Taliban’s actions were not enshrined in law. She admitted that a law for Shias is necessary but that it should be what is stated in Sharia or Islamic Law. “One of the very important pillars in Islam is justice, there is no justice in this law,” she said. Samar also pointed out the absurdities in the law, such as the edict on makeup. “If she doesn’t (put on make-up), will the husband go complain to the police that she didn’t put (on) the lipstick Or, ‘I like red but she put on pink.'”
However, Samar didn’t blame the clerics alone for creating the new law; she blamed various parts of the government for allowing it to pass. “I think they — all of them — took the whole issue very superficially. And none of the state institutions, ministry of justice, parliament, senate and the office of the president, really didn’t look at the law as serious as they should,” she said.