HERAT — Soraya Pakzad projects calm and serenity, qualities that are at odds with her daily routine. For the past six years she has been rescuing Afghan women from the steady round of violence and coercion that is all too often their lot in life.

A winner of the 2008 Women of Courage award, given by the U.S. State Department for exceptional leadership and bravery, Pakzad has created a small oasis of safety for women in her native Herat, Afghanistan’s second city.

But her work as the head of the organization Voices of Afghan Women is becoming more difficult as the government’s hold on security weakens and the economy declines.

“We have had to pull out of areas we worked in three years ago,” said Pakzad, sitting in her comfortable office on a tree-lined street in the city center. “The situation is worse, the policy is worse.”

One aspect of that policy is the Shi’ia Family Law, a highly contentious bill passed by parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai last month.

The law has grabbed headlines and unleashed rhetoric around the world, causing at least one NATO member to question its commitment to maintaining troops in Afghanistan.

Judging by the diplomatic brouhaha, the most inflammatory provision of the law requires a wife to satisfy her husband’s sexual desires, and mandates that a husband has a right to demand sex at least once every four nights. This has led to its being dubbed “the rape law” by media outlets around the world.

Pakzad smiles indulgently at the fuss. The reality is that no Afghan woman, Shi’ia or Sunni, has the right to object to her husband’s advances. The international outcry, while well meaning, misses the point: It is not a single law that is the problem, it is the overall status of women.

“Our law does not recognize rape within marriage,” she said. “The moment a woman is married, her husband is authorized to do whatever he wants.”

Shi’ia are a minority in predominantly Sunni Afghanistan, comprising approximately 15 percent of the population. Special provisions within the Afghan Constitution allow the Shi’ia to have special laws that pertain only to their communities. The offending law was pushed through parliament by a few powerful MPs, observers say, and done quickly and quietly.

“This law was very professionally passed through the parliament,” Pakzad said. “Even some of the women MPs did not object to it, because it was not explained well. There were just a few Shi’ia fundamentalists, very strict. I had always thought the Shi’ia were more liberal than the Sunni.”

The law, which President Barack Obama deemed “abhorrent,” contains many articles that severely curtail women’s rights. Among other restrictions, the law requires a wife to have her husband’s permission to leave the house except in dire emergencies; in its original form, the law sought to lower the legal age of marriage to 12 or even younger.

The law's Article 132 requires wives to submit to their husband's sexual demands. It was  strongly condemned by human rights groups around the world and by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, which issued a scathing report about the proposed law.

Most women in Afghanistan still face severe limitations in their personal lives. More than 50 percent of girls are married before they reach the legal age of 16, domestic violence is prevalent, and, especially in the conservative south, women cannot leave the house without permission from a male family member.

While the international community expected that the fall of the Taliban would free Afghanistan’s women, the reality is that cultural values, insecurity and the economy are proving as adept at hampering their development as the fundamentalists. The Shi’ia Family Law, whatever its provisions, is unlikely to worsen the actual situation greatly.

The real danger is that conservative lawmakers could seize on the bill as a pretext to roll back all of the legal protections women have gained under the present Constitution.

“It raised the alarm,” Pakzad said. “If this becomes law for the Sunni community as well, our work is finished. We cannot struggle against the law.”

While women’s legal rights may be more honored in the breach than in the observance of law, its existence at least furnishes a ray of hope.

“We have a beautiful Constitution,” smiled Pakzad. “It gives equal rights to men and women. There is a lack of governance, and women’s rights are not always protected. But if we see a violation, we can stop it.”

Pakzad established Afghanistan’s first shelter for women in 2003, providing legal assistance, guidance and mediation for women caught in impossible situations. She has dealt with “wives” as young as 9 years of age, who have run away from their husbands and sought refuge with her organization.

“If a man marries a 9-year-old girl, he is breaking the law,” she said. “We can tell him ‘if you do this, you will go to jail.'”

The legal age for marriage is 16 for girls, 18 for boys.

Pakzad has formed an alliance with Herat’s police, and in several cases husbands have been arrested and imprisoned for taking under-aged wives. Fathers and brothers could also face legal censure, she said, for giving away their sisters or daughters. But most are forced into it by economic hardship, needing the bride price a girl might fetch in order to feed the rest of their family.

“People are very poor,” she explained. “I have had fathers cry and say ‘I love my daughter, I do not want to give her up. But give me an option.’”

Pakzad has recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she met with prominent figures as part of a delegation of Afghan women.

She tried to explain her world — the falling numbers of girls in school, the increasing violence, forced marriages, self-immolation. Pakzad herself is the mother of six children, married at 14 with little say in her own future.

“I met Michelle (Obama) and Hillary (Clinton),” she said. “Michelle cried when I spoke about the way our women live. But they told me that more schools have been built, more roads have been paved. Why are they so concerned about the buildings? I think because a building is something they can measure, they can count. But who is going to be able to go to these schools?”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Afghanistan:

The almost-candidate

Afghans get the bombs, Pakistan the bucks

Love in the time of Taliban

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