Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Afghanistan’s Law Allowing Marital Rape

As you may have heard, the Afghanistan legislature passed a law last week that requires married women to have sex with her husband up to four times per week unless she is ill or unless sex would aggravate an illness!  At European and American objections, President Karzai promised to review the law (which the United Nations is calling a legalization of marital rape) has promised a thorough review of the law, but so far “doesn’t find anything objectional.”  The law is causing problems for the U.S. and NATO as we send both more civilians to help nation-build and more troops to hunt al Qaeda, protext civilians, and train Afghan military and police–an escalation I object to and predict will backfire. (By the way, anyone notice that the supposedly successful Iraqi “surge” is coming undone?)

When asked, Pres. Obama called the law “abhorrent” and I agree.  I think we should pressure Afghanistan to reverse this horrid law.  But before we in the West start to act superior and call this an illustration of how backward Afghanistan is or how patriarchal and sexist Islam is, etc., let’s use this nasty legislation as a time for a good hard look in the mirror.  In MANY Western countries “marital rape” is still unknown AS A LEGAL CONCEPT.  And before we act shocked at this Afghan law, let us remember in how many cultural contexts it would be assumed that wives give up all right to say no to their husband’s sexual advances.  How many of your own relatives, especially of a certain age, would speak of constant sexual availability as among a wife’s “marital duties?”

Here in Kentucky, we passed a law outlawing marital rape for the first time in the late 1990s.  Speaking with attorney friends, I can tell you that the law has proved unenforceable.  A wife appealing to it sometimes incurs domestic abuse–the opposite of the law’s intention.  And getting a KY jury to convict a husband of raping his wife has so far proven impossible.  It’s been tried 12 times since the law was signed. Zero convictions.  And many other U.S. states (including many which have far more liberal reputations than my adopted home here in KY) do not yet even acknowledge marital rape as a legal concept.  And conservative Christians are among those who most often respond to polls by denying that wives can morally refuse their husbands.

Sure, legalizing the inability of wives  to  say no, as the Afghan law does, is even more horrible.  But maybe we better start by acknowledging just how patriarchal and sexist our own religion and culture is, how far from sexual equality are the heterosexual  marriages in OUR cultures, before we act as if the Afghanis (or their Islamic heritage) is uniquely anti-woman.  Protest this law? Yes. Stand up for women everywhere and against the kind of cultural relativism that would sweep this under the rug? Definitely.  But not out of false  feelings of moral superiority–only with humility and a renewed determination to stand up for women, including married women, in our own lands and cultures and faiths, too.  Anything less is just hypocrisy.

UPDATE:  Good News:  Karzai has scrapped the law, for now.  Bad News:  The law’s failure will probably be a recruiting tool for the Taliban. Sigh.

April 6, 2009 - Posted by | Afghanistan, Christianity, family, feminism, Islam, sexism


  1. Yes, marital rape occurs in our culture, I know for a fact. And not many dare to declare it as rape and complain. There are many reasons not to. I think it is illegal here but how many would dare take their husbands to court? It must be worse when there are children. In a way Afghanistan is just being honest about it. I’m not by any means saying I approve – far from it. But I get sick of Westerners, particularly Christians (not you!!), ranting against the evils of Islam and the supposed ‘Arab mind’.

    Comment by steph | April 6, 2009

  2. Ditto to Steph and to your post. So often those who rant against Islam are no different as far as religious beliefs are concerned. On this issue, I suspect that they would remain very quiet.

    Comment by Ralph Reed | April 6, 2009

  3. Rape of any kind is morlally wrong and I don’t care whether it occurs in a Muslim or a Christian setting-It is still wrong. Any religion is open to criticism if it’s adherents practice something that is morally indefensible.Both Islam and Christianity (in the person of some of their followers) cannot claim to be lily-white and without sin.

    Comment by Paul | April 6, 2009

  4. Thanks, Guys. So, let’s stand up for women and protect them in bodily integrity and bodily security everywhere! Let’s pressure Afghanistan to drop this law, but use this time to also pressure our own governments for stronger laws against domestic rape and violence.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 6, 2009

  5. The problem with laws Michael is that not many women have the courage to accuse their husbands. I know. I didn’t.

    Comment by steph | April 6, 2009

  6. Steph, I am deeply sorry that your knowledge is that personal. I have family members who have that same knowledge. I don’t have the answers.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 6, 2009

  7. I am divorced now but I’ve never told anybody about all that. I am too ashamed. I should have left him at the very beginning but I was too frightened. I had the impression I couldn’t survive without him. Family knew I was dreadfully unhappy and after seven years of marriage, I was collected by my family for a ‘holiday’ and I never went back – although the psychological game playing went on for another seven years – even when I was in England. It is only the last 18 months that I have been completely free of him with no contact at all. but I would never tell anyone. How could you prove it in court anyway? On top of that is the humiliation of being thought stupid for not having left him when it first happened. Apart from fear, I always believed it would get better.

    Comment by steph | April 6, 2009

  8. It’s a familiar story. We have to change the culture of men.

    Sometimes, even unenforceable (or difficult to enforce) laws can have a beneficial effect by expressing societal disapproval. I suppose that’s the worst thing about Afghanistan’s new law–whereas before the culture winked at marital rape, now it EXPRESSLY approves! And that is truly horrible.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 7, 2009

  9. I’m personally opposed to marital rape but I don’t want to impose my personal sectarian religiously based morality on the rest of society. What goes on in the bedroom is no concern of the government. However, I would be for non-judgmental counseling for those who, for whatever reason, believe they have to engage in marital rape. In short, I’m moderately pro-choice.

    Comment by zbone | April 7, 2009

  10. Zbone,
    This is the kind of stupid cultural relativism that is liberal idiocy. All religions have blind spots. What you’ve said is that it’s okay to rape women as long as your religion says so. That’s like saying that we shouldn’t prosecute murderers as long as the murder was a religiously-based human sacfrifice.

    If you polled the women in Islamic countries, I’d bet you would find that they feel that a law permitting marital rape has been imposed on them by sectarians with a fundamentalist perspective. You do know that feminist Islamic scholars interpret the Qu’ran much differently than do the patriarchal mullahs, right? Just as feminist Christians differ from Christian fundamentalists.

    Women’s rights are human rights. And human rights are universal, regardless of cultural biases.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 7, 2009

  11. What choice does the woman have with that sort of ‘freedom’? Do you condone murder in the bedroom? I feel sick.

    Comment by steph | April 7, 2009

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