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Afghan Religious Leader Approves Of Restrictive Edict On Women

Activists fear that women's rights in Afghanistan are being eroded. (file photo)
One of Afghanistan's top religious figures has defended a series of religious decrees that observers warn could further erode women's rights in the country.

The eight-article fatwa was issued by a local ulema, or religious council, in the district of Deh Salah in the northern province of Baghlan last month. Among the edicts was a ban on women leaving their homes without a male companion and another that banned the sale of cosmetics on the basis that they are "un-Islamic" and promote adultery.

The fatwa, reminiscent of the strict edicts imposed by the Taliban during its rule of Afghanistan, prompted condemnation from rights activists and many of the district's residents. But while only senior clerics have the right to issue such edicts, the country's top religious figures have stayed silent on the issue up to now.

That changed when Mawlawi Enayatullah Baligh, a presidential adviser who serves on Afghanistan's top religious panel, the Ulema Council, staunchly defended the edicts while discussing the closure of cosmetics shops. "There is no way these shops could have stayed open," he told the Reuters news agency on July 20. "Shops are for business, not adultery."

The fatwa also barred women from clinics without a male escort and ordered strict dress codes for women, although it did not elaborate.

The document also threatened unspecified "punishments” for those who did not obey. During its rule, the Taliban's notorious vice and virtue police publicly beat women for breaking rules imposed by the group.

Civil Liberty Concerns

The controversy has cast a spotlight on the state of women's rights ahead of the expected pullout of foreign troops by the end of 2014. As international scrutiny has waned, powerful religious and conservative circles have taken steps to undermine women's civil liberties.

In Afghanistan, a deeply religious and conservative country, religion is often above the law. That has meant that religious figures have frequently been the main obstacle to women winning the rights afforded them under the Afghan Constitution.

Such is the power wielded by the country's religious leaders that even female lawmakers and activists appear resigned to the fact that cooperation with them is necessary to forge a path for women's rights.

Fawzia Koofi, a lawmaker and outspoken campaigner for women's rights, has warned that, without religious leaders' support, gains made by women could quickly be wiped out once foreign troops withdraw.

"The role of the mullahs is crucial because we're an Islamic nation and the mosques are being used against women," Koofi told Reuters on July 16. "Why not use them for women?"

Many residents of Deh Salah, home to 80,000 people, disagree with the ulema's decrees, saying local religious leaders are flexing their muscles.

One resident, who did not want to be named, told Radio Free Afghanistan that the decrees were just an excuse to crack down on women.

"When these ulema members give their opinions on cosmetic shops, can't they see that outside their homes and mosques there are drugs like hashish and opium?" he asked. "Thousands of people are dying from drugs. [Afghanistan] has a thousand other [pressing] issues. They haven't issued decrees about any of these things."

The clout of local religious council members recently prompted Abdul Rasul, who was the district mayor of Deh Salah, to take steps to shut down cosmetics shops.

Rasul took action after ulema members threatened to burn the shops down if he did not act. He was shot dead on July 6 by a shopkeeper who refused to close his business.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.