Many worried that debating the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law in parliament might backfire. In the end, the Speaker cut short the discussion and sent it into the shadows of a parliamentary committee for further discussion. However, even such a brief debate brought he existence of the law to the public’s attention and the reactions have mostly been negative. Hundreds of students on Wednesday staged a protest, not only to condemn this particular law, but the whole current political system. They chanted slogans such as ‘democracy is kufr’ and ‘democracy is bestial’. Borhan Osman has been looking at the students’ reaction and how the public perceives the law. Although the demonstration was small, a backlash that was stronger, more broad-based and sustained could surface, he writes, if the law is again put to debate.
Rallying under various-coloured flags representing different brands of organised Islamism, hundreds of students of Kabul University chanted ‘death to democracy’ on Wednesday, 22 May. They were objecting to the Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) law which was enacted by a presidential decree in 2009 and has been applied – albeit patchily – in courtrooms ever since (see our previous blog here).
Reaction to the law has only come so tardily because, before, the public did not know of its existence. That all changed on 18 May when a female member of parliament tried to render the law into a bill for parliamentary ratification. This move was widely criticised by women rights activists who feared asking a parliament dominated by conservatives to debate the law would be tantamount to destroying it (see our previous blogs on this here and here). In the end, the Speaker ordered a halt to the debate after only 6 MPs had spoken and sent it back to a special parliamentary committee to consolidate its details before, he said, it should be brought again before a plenary session of the Wolesi Jirga. Exposing the bill to public attention has stirred up counter-lobbying aimed at abolishing the law altogether. Such lobbyists may have the opportunity to create a momentum of opinion against the law if the bill comes back in front of the house.
The strongest protest, so far, came from students at Kabul University, the country’s premier higher education institute,(1) in the form of an angry demonstration under the banners of various Islamist groups. Brought out onto the streets by the EVAW law, they cursed not only this specific bill, but all temporal laws developed by human beings and, therefore they argued, not of divine origin.
The students, who claimed not to represent any particular group or movement, numbered around 700. A small number of students from other state-run universities in Kabul, such as the Polytechnic University and the Ustad Rabbani Education University also joined them. Additionally, a smaller number of older, non-student outsiders joined in the protest. The majority of the demonstrators were not from the Sharia Faculty (as wrongly reported by some local media, for example here), but were a mix of all faculties and ethnic backgrounds. The only link that could be drawn to the Sharia Faculty was that one of its students, Mawladad Jalali, was selected to lead the demonstration. More importantly, however, he is the imam or prayer leader of the mosque in the students’ hostel, a position which gives him the special respect of worshippers and an imam’s authorisation to speak and decide on religious issues.
Interestingly, some Shia students came out to demonstrate only to find themselves among a crowd dominated by the sort of ultra-conservative Sunnis who are likely to consider Shias as enemies in faith. A Shia student told AAN that ‘a sizeable’ number of Shia students joined the demonstration early on to protest what they see as a common cause: the threat to Afghanistan’s Islamic and social values by, as he saw it, Western-oriented models of laws. ‘But we withdrew,’ he said, ‘as soon as we saw the demonstration was dominated by some politicised students whose slogans turned out to be against [our] expectation.’
Those slogans were unusually extremist , of a kind hardly seen in Afghanistan before. Ironically, they condemned the very laws which actually allow protestors to take to the streets and exercise free speech. They included placards reading: ‘The first step for enforcing Islam is abolishing democracy’ and ‘democracy means kufr, democracy means dishonour, democracy means obscenity, democracy means bestial behaviour’. Not only their slogans were explicitly radical, but their behaviour and speeches were also aggressive. Indeed, Jalali, among others vowed to join the Taleban to fight against the government if what they called ‘the law of infidels’ was not repealed.
The demonstration’s marshals tried to keep the media away from individual participants, warning them not to interview anyone in order to prevent what they would say was a misrepresentation of the demonstrators’ aims. Only participants assigned beforehand as the spokesmen were allowed to talk to media. Moreover, journalists were told to wait until the end of the demonstration in order to interview the spokesmen. The marshals had also blocked the entrance gate of the university which also resulted in the cancellation of all classes.
As with most recent radical student mobilisations, one important issue remains elusive: who are the main groups that engineer them, and engineer them so well? The banners and flags under which the students marched(2) suggested they supported, variously, the Taleban, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Hezb-e Islami. One student chanting a typical Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) slogan, ‘We want the caliphate,’ was blocked as he tried to reach the podium. However, at least one similar call was made at the demonstration in the form of a placard. Moreover, the slogan ‘democracy is kufr’, another classical motto of the media-savvy HT, was clearly visible in the demonstration(3). This pan-Islamist group is outlawed in Afghanistan, but also announced the demonstration on its website.
Interviews with the organisers of the event, including Jalali, insisted HT was only a small part of the rally. He did not deny that sympathisers of all the above mentioned groups might have been present, but said they were not taking part as representatives of the groups, rather merely as ordinary students.
There have also been a string of extremely negative conversations among the public and on social media and, as noticed by this author in conversation with a variety of people in Kabul. Some mullahs in the capital also chose to lambast the law in their Friday sermons. One imam in Khushhal Khan Mena, for example, said its introduction was part of the attempted Westernisation of Afghanistan, which he equated as a de-Islamisation. He warned the ulama not to let what he called this ‘anti-Islamic’ law be passed. A gathering of ulama was also reported in Jalalabad, during which the religious scholars condemned the law and called for its re-writing. A similar gathering was reported in Kunduz where the ulama said in their declaration htat the law was ‘legalising adultery’.
In all these debates and speeches and conversations, it seems the way the law came to the public’s attention has prompted a lot of negative perceptions. Precise knowledge of what is actually in the law appears to be scarce and distorted. However, hearing a combination of words such as women + freedom + shelters, especially coming from the mouths of trusted religious actors, has been enough for many to immediately judge the law in the harshest terms. Various provisions have been condemned, including the criminalisation of forced marriage and making polygamy conditional. By far the most controversial is the right of women, who may be suffering domestic violence or fleeing forced marriage, to go to a shelter (khana-ye amn). The shelters – described by the law’s opponents as places where women get raped or prostituted – have become totemic of the whole law, singled out as an un-Islamic, Western attack on Afghanistan itself. The other part of the law that has come to the notice of its critics is criminalising rape, but not mentioning consensual adultery, which they take as legalisation of the latter.
It seems shelters have already felt an impact. In one case AAN knows of, a victim of violence was taken back home by her relatives from a shelter in Kabul after the public debate flared up. An Islamic defence of some of the controversial provisions of the EVAW law is possible; read UNAMA’s report which quotes Sharia scholars, for example (here). However, in a country where rumours and myths travel far faster than facts, it can become too difficult to convey a true version of anything once it has become distorted, especially when we are dealing with a complex subject like the law.
At the end of the day, the Kabul students’ demonstration against the EVAW law was small. However, similar issues have, in the past, proved lethal to governments. Protests against social reforms for women turned Amanullah Khan from a highly respected ruler, a ghazi who had wrestled independence from the British, into an angrezi amir, an ‘English’ ruler. Being seen to push for reforms when it comes to Afghan women’s lives can easily touch and threaten the most deeply held sentiments of honour, patriarchy, love of one’s religion and patriotism. This issue then is potentially incendiary. The common people, who tend to respond quickly to religious sloganeering by the ulama and religious groups, can be easily mobilised against a perceived threat to ‘Afghanistan’s social values’, even if – observed more calmly – this threat would seem to be blown out of proportion. The key, as always, is if the choice is taken to mobilise.
(1) The Kabul University campus has not been unfamiliar to hard-line politics. In the 1970s, it was both the birthplace and the battlefield of opposing radical ideologies when communists and Islamists clashed each other violently. Recently, too, demonstrations such as the one against an anti-Islamic and the deadly Ashura riots (read our extensive reports about the two here and here respectively) brought campus politics into spotlight. The student’s obsession with politics has made President Karzai frequently call for keeping politics out of educational institutions.
(2) Hizb ut-Tahrir, an avowedly non-violent group whose aim is to bring about the (re)-emergency of an Islamic caliphate, uses a black flag with thekalima (the two-sentence declaration of faith) printed on it. Jihadist groups, such as al Qaida and likeminded movements, also use a black flag withkalima, but with some variation and additions. Hizb-e Islami opted for a green flag and the Taleban for a white one, both with the kalima.
(3) The description of the demonstration is based on talks with its participants, its footages and pictures and interviews with journalists who attended.
Photo by Ghulam Hussain Sirat
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020