KABUL (Reuters) -- A top Shi'ite cleric has said the Afghan government had no right to change a law for Shi'ite Afghans that was widely condemned by Afghanistan's Western backers for curbing women's rights.
The Shi'ite Afghan Personal Status Law was the idea of Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, who led the council of leading Muslim clerics that helped draft the legislation.
The law, meant to formalize minority Shi'ite family law, which differs from that of the majority Sunni population, contains articles that some lawmakers have said would legalize marital rape and U.S. President Barack Obama called "abhorrent."
Earlier this week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he met the justice minister and the country's most senior religious leaders to discuss the law, which has already been passed by parliament and signed by Karzai but has not yet come into effect.
But Mohseni said any changes to the law were unacceptable.
"The Justice Ministry has no right to change any article," Mohseni, who is widely regarded as the religious leader of Afghanistan's Shi'ite minority, told a news conference.
"Any changes it brings will be against the constitution," he said, adding the West was putting too much pressure on Karzai to change the law. "If he changes the law, he works against our democracy, if he keeps it he is accused of being authoritarian."
Women's rights have improved significantly in Afghanistan since the 2001 overthrow of the strict Sunni Islamist Taliban government. It prohibited women from working, attending school, or leaving their homes without a male relative.
But Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative Muslim society, particularly in remote rural areas, something the Kabul government has to balance alongside demands from its Western backers for a pluralistic, democratic political system.
Some Shi'ite women officials have said they approve of the law in principle because it enshrines important differences between the Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim sects in Afghanistan, but that in its present form it was unacceptable.
Some lawmakers have also said Karzai signed the law hastily because he is facing a crucial election on August 20 and wants to curry favor with Shi'ite voters, who can swing an election.