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New Law Seen As Setback For Afghan Women's Rights

Under the law, Shi'ite women are not allowed to work without their husbands' permission
Under the law, Shi'ite women are not allowed to work without their husbands' permission
By Golnaz Esfandiari
A new law that applies only to Shi'ite Muslims in Afghanistan threatens to reintroduce some Taliban-era restrictions and reverse progress on women's rights in a country still struggling to recover from years of oppressive rule.

The law, which has not yet been published, was passed by parliament and was reportedly signed by President Hamid Karzai earlier this month.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, the legislation says that Afghan Shi'ite women will not have the right to leave their homes except for "legitimate" purposes, and forbids women from working or receiving education without their husbands' express permission.

The legislation explicitly permits marital rape by saying that a wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband. It reportedly diminishes the right of mothers to be their children's guardians in the event of a divorce. And it makes it impossible for wives to inherit houses and land from their husbands -- even though husbands may inherit property from their wives.

The legislation only applies to Shi'a, whom the Afghan Constitution allows to be governed by separate law where family issues are concerned. Shi'ite Muslims make up over 10 percent of Afghanistan's population.

President Hamid Karzai sought to quell UN and Western alarm over the legislation, saying on April 4 that "we understand the concerns of our allies in the international community," according to Reuters.

"Those concerns may be out of an inappropriate or not so good translation of the law or a misinterpretation of this," Karzai said. He suggested that a copy he'd seen did not merit such international criticism, and said the country's justice minister would study the law "very, very carefully" and then speak in detail about it on April 5.

"If there is anything that is of concern to us, then we will definitely take action in consultation with our ulema [senior clerics] and send it back to the parliament," Karzai said, according to Reuters. "This is something we are serious about."

Loss Of Hard-Won Rights

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women in Afghanistan have seen their situation improve slowly but surely with the return of basic rights, such as the right to study and work.

But the new legislation threatens to turn back the clock. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called on President Hamid Karzai to rescind the law, saying that it is reminiscent of the decrees passed by the Taliban in the 1990s.

Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific director, also had harsh words for the new legislation. "When we talk to ordinary people in Afghanistan, they all express concern about a return of the Taliban and Taliban laws," Zarifi said. "Now we see that even though the Taliban have not been able to come and capture Kabul, those who think like them bring these laws to Afghanistan from the back door."

Soraya Sobrang, the head of the women's rights department of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, tells RFE/RL that the implementation of the law would set a disastrous precedent for all Afghan women.

"We are concerned that now that the law has been approved, all forms of violence against women and the discrimination that exists against women in Afghanistan become legal," Sobrang said. "We are worried that similar laws, including the family law for Sunnis, could meet the same fate," and see a roll-back of women's rights, she said.

Sobrang said the international community should use its influence to change the law.

Election Issue

Reports say that Karzai initially signed the law under pressure from influential Shi'ite clerics in order to secure the vote of the Hazaras, a major and predominantly Shi'ite ethnic group in Afghanistan, in the upcoming presidential election.

Sabrina Saqib, an Afghan parliamentarian, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the legislation was passed hastily in an effort to address religious sensitivities. She said the various articles of the law were not even read aloud, as is standard practice in parliament.

"The arguments were based on Shari'a and religious laws, and there are always disagreement on these issues among clerics, lawmakers, and politicians," Saqib said. "Unfortunately the sensitivities prevented us from studying the law article by article, and it was voted in as a package."

While rights activists and some lawmakers, including Sadiq, say the law contradicts the Afghan Constitution and international human rights conventions, Shi'ite lawmakers who helped draft the law have defended it, saying it protects women's rights.

During a March 31 conference on Afghanistan held in The Hague, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb mentioned the law in discussions with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Reports say Clinton later raised the issue during her private meeting with Karzai.

Clinton told reporters at the conference that women's rights are a core element of U.S. foreign policy.

"You cannot expect a country to develop if half its population are underfed, undereducated, undercared for, oppressed, and left on the sidelines," Clinton said. "And we believe strongly that that's not in the interest of Afghanistan or any country -- and it's certainly not part of our foreign policy and our strategic review. So we will continue to work very hard on behalf of women and girls in Afghanistan and around the world."

British Defense Secretary John Hutton told BBC on the sidelines of the NATO summit on April 4 that the issue "is going to be raised at the very highest level [of the Afghan government], I can assure you of that."

"The government of Afghanistan must abide by international agreements that it has entered into willingly," Hutton added.

Also in Strasbourg, Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said the law as described would be "alarming and troubling for many allies," and urged Karzai to explain the legislation.

Ahmad Takal of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report. Additional reporting from Strasbourg by RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas

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