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Afghanistan: Women Demand Equal Rights Be Written Into Constitution

Prague, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Debate on Afghanistan's draft constitution is continuing today through the Muslim day of rest as delegates to the Loya Jirga, or Grand National Assembly, try to move past controversies in Kabul.

Since 14 December, some 500 delegates from across the country have been debating the terms of a new constitution that will pave the way for democratic elections in June.

Female delegates are asking that equal rights with men be explicitly written into the draft constitution and have succeeded in seeing some of their proposals included.

Soraya Parlicka from Kabul, one of around 100 female delegates to the Loya Jirga, says an agreement has been reached on the status of women and education.

"In one of the articles of the draft, regarding education, it was written 'citizens of Afghanistan.' I proposed that the expression 'women and men' should be explicitly put. And it was included," Parlicka said.

Under the former Taliban's harsh Islamic rule, women were denied education and barred from public life in Afghanistan.

Noorya Wisal, a delegate from southeastern Ghazni Province, says female delegates would like to see that specific clause -- "Afghan men and women," instead of "Afghan citizens" -- included throughout the document.

Delegate Nadera Hayat Burhani from northern Balkh Province, meanwhile, is insisting that a special article on women's rights be added, as well as a provision banning trafficking in women.

The proceedings were disrupted on 17 December when a female delegate provoked an uproar by criticizing the prominence of powerful warlords and former anti-Soviet fighters at the convention. Malalai Joya, from western Farah Province, denounced factional leaders and the mujahedin as "criminals" and called for some of them to be put on trial for plunging the country into four years of civil war between 1992 and 1996.

"Those were the individuals who turned our country into a civil and international war zone," she said. "Those people who don't believe in equality of rights for women brought our country to its present state. In my opinion, it is a mistake to try again what has already been tried before."

Afghan soldiers had to mount the stage to keep order as dozens of angry mujahedin delegates rushed forward, demanding Joya be expelled.

Amnesty International and the United Nations yesterday condemned threats made against Joya. She is continuing to attend the debate under the protection of the UN.

In the meantime, scores of delegates are reportedly threatening to boycott the convention unless the key issue of whether to have a presidential or parliamentary system of government is discussed by the whole gathering. The delegates have been divided into 10 groups to hash out the draft, which foresees extended presidential powers and no post of prime minister.

Critics have been demanding a prime minister -- or at least a stronger parliament -- to counterbalance presidential powers.

A simple majority of delegates is necessary to endorse the draft constitution. But protesters say that if they refuse to enter the debate, the legitimacy of the outcome of the assembly will be called into question.

Opponents are also accusing Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai of arm-twisting and buying off opponents with promises of future government roles.

The protest has been launched mainly by sections of the Northern Alliance, a coalition dominated by ethnic Tajiks which helped the U.S. drive the Taliban from power in late 2001. The alliance, which is represented in the current government, has campaigned for the post of prime minister. Karzai opposes the idea.

The debate on the constitution is expected to last for weeks, although Karzai has said it should not take more than 10 days.

(Enayant Sharif from RFE/RL's Afghan Service contributed to this report.)