Playing with Numbers instead of Protecting Civil Liberties

Wedding Car in Kabul
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Wedding Car in Kabul

After strong criticism voiced by Afghan human rights and civil society organizations, the Ministry of Justice has modified the draft law on how to celebrate weddings in Afghanistan. The result is disappointing: The changes are merely technical and do not address the common concern of too much interference in people’s private affairs.

The Afghan constitution in article 24 grants personal liberties to all citizens. Afghanistan is member of international Human Rights and Women’s Rights Conventions. One of the most impressive and courageous institutions in the country is the Independent Afghan Rights Commission (AIHRC). Nonetheless, time and again the ministries are drafting laws that are not in accordance with the idea of liberties and that are not respecting the equality between men and women.

The latest example is a draft law for regulating wedding celebrations. Apart from general stipulations in order to protect young couples from financial hardship caused by expensive celebrations, there are detailed regulations on a number of other issues. It is meticulously mentioned, how expensive wedding dress and the food served may be, how many guests can be invited. Furthermore there it is specified how the bride’s dress may look and that no extra charges may be paid for room decoration. Weddings, so the new law, have to be celebrated separately between men and women. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is moreover supposed to work with women to prevent them from wearing un-Islamic dresses that shall be forbidden. Even tailors doing dresses that are not in accordance with Sharia law and hosts that do not forbid their guests to film the event shall be subject to punishment.

AIHRC, women and human rights organizations who all have been discussing this draft law decided to boycott any formal debate on potential modifications. As Mr. Fahim Hakim, deputy head of AIHRC says: “The law as such is neither in accordance with the Afghan constitution nor with human rights. That is nothing amendments can change.” The Ministry of Justice is still eager, however, to promote the law. Irrespective of the well explained criticism from civil society activists, the ministry has brought some changes and still hopes to have this law passed. The modifications are not dealing with any of the specific stipulations that are limiting personal freedoms. The changes are only tackling how much money can be spent on food (around 6 EUR instead of previously 4 EUR per person) and the maximum number of guests has been raised to 300 in an engagement party and 500 in the actual wedding celebration.

The Ministry of Justice has a Human Rights support department that was established last year. This department should have the overview and make sure laws are drafted that are in accordance with human rights. Its role is unclear, however, and by being located outside the ministry it is also technically marginalized.

“But what about all other regulations that allow for interference in citizens’ private affairs?” the daily newspaper Hashte Sobh quotes Mr. Mir Joyenda who is a former Member of Parliament and civil society activist. Regarding the moral based stipulations of the law he says: “Afghan Muslims can respect Islamic laws with regard to how they are dressing themselves. This (to regulate it by law) is totally interfering into people’s personal life.”

That, however, is the tricky thing about this law – in the Afghan context, all criticism directed at it can easily be portrayed as promoting immoral. “Of course nobody here would ask for having necessarily mixed celebrations or have ‘semi-naked’ guests,” an observer says, “but in our context, all these issues are so sensitive and even if we only want to advocate the right of own decisions in such personal questions, it is easy for conservatives to tarnish our image.”

Dr. Soraya Sobhrang of the Independent Human Rights Commission underlines this point: “It is not about single issues that are addressed in this law. Our criticism is not directed at any specific stipulation. The main point is that governmental authorities are considering interference in personal liberties at all while they should feel committed to and stick to the principles of the Afghan constitution.”

The draft is now being passed to the cabinet, then the parliament. While having been in session since February, the Afghan parliament has not yet passed a single law. Thus, it is likely that the parliamentarians might consider this a welcome opportunity to show at least some legal activity and pass the law regardless of its content.


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