Shooting The Sorrows Of Afghan Women: The Scandinavian View

08/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Tove Iren Spissøy Gerhardsen, Reporters Uncensored (RUTV) European Correspondent

From my office in an old, royal-looking building smack in the middle of Copenhagen, I see women riding their city bikes with straight backs and high heals, and it is difficult to imagine a world farther apart than that of Afghanistan. Writing from a region of Europe where women have unconditionally equal rights with men and couples hardly get married, this week's Reporters UNCENSORED live show's focus on the discriminatory marriage law in Afghanistan is a stark - and indeed shocking - contrast to my own, and many other women's, world.

Flagging women's rights in Afghanistan seems more important than ever. After years of war, the liberation from Taliban rule in 2001 should have finally given them a chance to embrace personal freedom and enjoy the human rights that many of us have taken for granted for decades.

But the Afghan women are still not given a break. Although the reformist President Hamid Karzai is trying to open up the country, strong religious forces are fighting to keep status quo or even call for a return to Taliban rule.

In March this year, the new controversial marriage law passed both houses of parliament in Afghanistan. It says that a husband can demand sex from his wife every four days unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse, and it regulates when and for what reasons a wife may leave her home on her own. Apparently the law passed because President Karzai was pressured by Shi'i Muslim clerics to approve the measures in order to keep their votes.

The top Afghan cleric Mohammad Asif Mohseni defended the legislation, saying "a woman can refuse sex with her husband if she is fasting for Ramadan, preparing for a pilgrimage, menstruating, or has just given birth," according to cbcnews.ca.

The draft law - which apparently was never signed and approved by President Karzai - was met with strong resistance and indeed outrage both from within and outside of Afghanistan, including here in Europe. Again, the women of Afghanistan showed their strength and perseverance that we in the West can only admire. A new version of the law appeared which removed the four-day intercourse requirement and now "only" requires women to certain types of housework. It is better, but still many argue it is discriminatory against women.

A one-year-old under the table

I shot a video for Reporters UNCENSORED (RU) on what people in Denmark think about the marriage law. What other country would be better suited to highlight this particular issue, I thought. In Scandinavia women have long been equal to men in terms of jobs, education - and on the home front. Scandinavian men have long realised that they have to do their share of house work to keep their women (happy). And in which other parts of the world do the women get a year paid leave when she has a baby - and even better: she can share this time with her husband, many of whom are happy to take paid paternity leave?

In addition, Denmark is - together with other European countries such as Germany and the UK - at war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. This war has been criticised because of many losses and lack of progress, but its cause was always much more supported than the Iraqi war. Moreover, the former Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is taking over the NATO helm next week. This combined should make it easy to get comments on the marriage law in Afghanistan.

But no. Most people had vaguely heard about it in the news, but had not paid attention to the details. It had something to do with that "hard-to-pin-down" Afghan conflict. So I decided to call an expert, namely chairman of the Danish Afghan Committee, Viggo Fischer, who used to be a member of the Danish parliament. He was more than willing to help highlight this important issue. He had a tight schedule so I gladly accepted the slot he gave me. Great! Now my next problem was to find someone look after my 1-year-old son. He had just started nursery and was not overly eager to be there more than a couple of hours a day. This particular day he had over-stayed and it was time to pick him up before my appointment.

I packed him, some toys and some life-saving crackers, my camera equipment and the address and headed for the Afghan Committee. It meant two trains, but luckily the public transportation system is great here. Got there, ran/walked in the hot sun and finally found it. Proudly five minutes before time. But ops, no Afghan Committee in that building, a person smoking outside told me. What? I called Fischer and yes, I had taken down the wrong address. But he had just time if I came straight there. We ran - and made it.

A bit embarrassed showing up all sweaty with a one-year-old on my arm (of course I had not dared telling him on the phone) and painfully aware of it appearing quite unprofessional, I arrived at their office. But Fischer was great. My son was given a teddy bear and all my crackers and we started filming, while he sat quietly under the table (he made some happy sounds but luckily not more than we were able to keep the focus on Afghanistan).

Fischer was well prepared. He talked about how equal rights between the sexes was an important goal in Danish foreign aid and policy, and how this was particularly important in a war-torn country like Afghanistan. There should be no legal objections for women to help re-build the country. Denmark had been concerned about the marriage law, but was hopeful that it would change. The reason was that Afghanistan had in its Constitution committed itself to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which clearly secures women equality with men. He said it was a cause of optimism for the future of the country that the women of Afghanistan had played such an active role in protesting against this law.

Tune in!

My film will not be part of this week's RU show, but is available on the RU web site. But the show will feature prominent women who are deeply involved in Afghan women's struggle. Karen Sherman, Executive Director of Global Programs at Women for Women International will join us via Skype from Washington, DC; and we will show an interview with Afghan/Iranian writer and human rights activist Roya Shakibaee on her thoughts on the new marriage law, made by RUTV's Middle East Correspondent, Marzieh Vafamehr, who went to the Afghan border to do the shooting.

Moreover, we will get the Afghan perspective from Shakira Hamidi, Program Manager of Women for Afghan Women (WAW) who will join us in studio. And finally, joining us in studio as our social innovator of the week, will be Mikhail Serdiouk from the group Afghanhands, which teaches skills to help Afghan widows to gain independence, literacy, and a livable wages.

So please tune in and join us for our third live and interactive show on Wednesday, 29 July at 6pm Eastern. Welcome!