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Karzai Says UN, Western Anger At Shi'ite Law 'Inappropriate'

The legislation is said to compel a wife to "fulfill the sexual desires of her husband."
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said concerns expressed by the United States and the United Nations toward a new law for Afghanistan's Shi'ite minority and its impact on women's rights were inappropriate.

Shi'ite Muslims account for some 15 percent of mainly Sunni Muslim Afghanistan and the Shi'ite Personal Status Law has been attacked by Afghan lawmakers for diminishing women's rights.

Karzai has signed the law, but it has not yet come into force as it has not been promulgated in the official gazette.

The United States, NATO, Canada, and the United Nations have voiced concern about the law, after some Afghan lawmakers said it legalises marital rape, but Karzai said their criticisms were based on a wrong translation or misinterpretation of the law.

"We understand the concerns of our allies in the international community. Those concerns may be out of an inappropriate or not so good translation of the law or a misinterpretation of this," Karzai told reporters.

Karzai said a copy of the law he had seen did not reflect the criticisms and concerns of Afghanistan's Western backers.

He said the justice minister would speak in detail about the law on April 5 after studying it "very, very carefully."

"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.... This is something we are serious about," Karzai said.

Britain, which is the second-largest troop contributor to the NATO-led military operation in Afghanistan, also weighed-in on concerns about the law and said it must be addressed by the Afghan government "at the very highest level".

"The government of Afghanistan must abide by international agreements that it has entered into willingly," British Defence Secretary John Hutton said in an interview with the BBC.

In a copy of the law obtained by Reuters, Article 132 states that "a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband."

It also states that a husband should spend one night in every four with his wife, have sexual contact with her at least once every four months, and that a woman has to wear make-up if her husband demanded it.

Article 137 also says a woman cannot inherit any of her husband's wealth when he dies.

Amendments made to the law show that the age of marriage for women was raised to 16 from nine and that a woman would be allowed to leave her home unaccompanied for medical treatment, to go to work or for her education.

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.