Women’s Equality and Shia Law
A new Shia family law signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai sometime last month would severely restrict women’s rights in Afghanistan. While the Afghan constitution guarantees equal rights for women, it also allows the Shia community, which represents about 10 per cent of the population, the right to settle family law cases according to Shia law. According to news sources, Karzai signed the bill to court the Hazara vote in the upcoming presidential election.
Details about the new Shi’ite Personal Status Law are few. The text has not yet been published in the official gazette. Karzai and members of his office have yet to comment. But the UN and opposition politicians say that the bill contains numerous provisions restricting the rights of women, such as giving their husbands priority in court; requiring the husband’s permission to leave the house, obtain education or employment, or to see a doctor; and reserving the custody of children to male relatives. Its most controversial provision, though, is Article 132, which requires wives to submit to their husbands’ sexual demands. It reportedly says that a husband can expect sex with his wife once in every four days except in the event of illness. The United Nations argues that this is equivalent to spousal rape.
It never ceases to amaze me that the assault on the biblical pattern for marriage comes from both sides. As Shia law demonstrates, it comes on the right, from those who would abuse authority and submission -who regard women as inferior and demean, degrade, and assault them. But it also comes on the left, from those who would throw off all distinction between male and female, deride authority and submission, and seek an egalitarian gender-neutral-type of existence.
Do I believe that the law should treat men and women as equals? Absolutely. We ought to speak out against this Shia law and against any other law that legalizes the misuse of authority and acts of oppression. Then do I believe in authority and submission in marriage? Absolutely. I believe in the biblical model that displays the glory of Christ’s relationship to his Bride: Men are to reflect the strength, love and self-sacrifice of Christ. Women are to reflect the character, grace and beauty of the Bride he redeemed. In the biblical model, authority and submission are lived out voluntarily, with humbleness, gentleness and the indwelling power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Laws that promote the equal treatment of all persons serve a protective function. They are necessary. I like the thinking of C. S. Lewis on this matter. He maintains that equality is in the same position as clothes: “It is a result of the Fall and the remedy for it.” But, he argues, it is the naked body, still there beneath the clothes of each one of us, which really lives. It is the hierarchical world, still alive and (very properly) hidden behind a facade of equality, which is our real concern:
Artificial equality is necessary in the life of the State, but …in the Church we strip off this disguise, we recover our real inequalities, and are thereby refreshed and quickened…
I believe in political equality… Fallen men are so wicked that not one of the can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows… The authority of father and husband has been rightly abolished on the legal plane, not because this authority is in itself bad (on the contrary, it is, I hold, divine in origin), but because fathers and husbands are bad….
But the function of equality is purely protective. It is medicine, not food. By treating human persona as if they were all the same kind of thing, we avoid innumerable evils. But it is not on this that we were made to live… Authority exercised with humility and obedience accepted with delight are the very lines along which our spirits live… in the Body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.’ It is like turning from a march to a dance. We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct.
A given man may make a very bad husband; you cannot mend matters by trying to reverse the roles. He may make a bad male partner in a dance. The cure for that is that men should more diligently attend dancing classes; not that the ballroom should henceforward ignore distinctions of sex and treat all dancers as neuter. That would, of course, be eminently sensible, civilized, and enlightened, but, once more, “not near so much like a Ball.”
C. S. Lewis(Excerpts from Essays on “Membership” and “Priestesses in the Church”)
Gender dominance and gender neutrality both threaten the integrity and beauty of the “dance” the Lord instituted for male and female. In this, and every other battle, we would do well to heed Proverbs 4:27: “Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”