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New Afghan Family Law Prompts Rival Demonstrations

Policewomen form a human chain to keep the rival protests apart.
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan women staged rival demonstrations on April 15 for and against a new family law, which opponents denounce as a step back toward the oppressiveness of the Taliban era, but which supporters say defends Islamic justice.

Separated by human chains of female police, and watched by wary riot control officers, the two groups lined up outside a new Kabul Shi'ite mosque built by a powerful cleric who helped draft the contested law.

The legislation -- which only applies to the Shi'ite minority that makes up about 10 percent of Afghanistan's population -- has drawn widespread condemnation from Western countries, many of whom have troops fighting to support Afghanistan's government.

Critics say the law would restrict women's freedom of movement, and that some articles could be interpreted as legalizing marital rape. Backers say it would give the long-oppressed Shi'ites their own family law code for the first time, and that critics have misread parts of the law.

"We don't want the Taliban law," read one banner waved by the group of around 50 women opposing the law. They handed out a declaration calling the legislation an insult to their dignity.

"It is frightening to be here but I could not just sit in my house," said Halima Hosseini, a 27-year-old at her first protest. "I personally cannot allow someone else to represent me and put articles in law that are against my rights, against human rights and consider me, as a woman, a second-class human."

But the law's opponents were outnumbered by its supporters. More than 100 women marched out from the mosque shouting "God is Great" and waving banners backing "Islamic Justice."

"The women coming here to demonstrate don't know much about the law and did not study it fully," said Qudsia Frotan, a 21-year-old student leading women in support of the law. She said it bore no resemblance to Taliban-era controls. "Taliban laws contradict Islam. They say women cannot go and seek knowledge, but Islam says women must seek knowledge."

A group of over 200 angry male supporters also gathered on the steps of the mosque, occasionally surging towards the women and throwing small stones at the law's opponents.

Curbs on women's freedom of movement remind the law's opponents of the Taliban, who banned women and girls from working or studying, as well as going outdoors without a male relative.

An earlier draft of the law said that a woman was not allowed to leave her home unaccompanied by her husband. Amendments since added would permit women to leave their homes unaccompanied for employment, medical treatment, or education.

Among the law's provisions are that "a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband," which critics say could be used by a husband to justify raping his wife.

The law drew strong criticism from President Hamid Karzai's Western allies, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who called it "abhorrent." Karzai has since ordered a review.

The Western response has angered the law's backers.

"We are not interfering with their social laws, so why are they doing this?" said Nilab Darab, a woman protester studying at the school attached to the mosque.

Women's rights have improved significantly in Afghanistan since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, especially in cities.

But Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative Muslim society, particularly in rural areas, something the Kabul government has to balance alongside demands from its Western backers for a pluralistic, democratic political system.

Some lawmakers have also said Karzai signed the law hastily because he is facing an election on August 20 and wants to curry favor with Shi'ite voters, who can swing an election.