Afghan President Hamid Karzai has backed a statement from the country's top religious body calling for stronger restrictions on women's freedoms.
On March 2, the Ulema Council issued a statement saying that men and women should not mix in the workplace or schools and that women must always be accompanied by a male relative when they travel.
Speaking at a news conference in Kabul on March 6, Karzai maintained that the statement did not call for restrictions on women but rather protected the standing of Afghan women.
“Regarding the statement from Afghanistan's Ulema Council, they didn’t propose any limitations [on Afghan women]," he said. "In their [statement], they announced Islamic principles and values relating to the defense and reinforcement of women's position. This [statement] is in accordance with a Shari’a view of our country, which all Muslims and Afghans are committed to."
The statement from the Ulema Council, which was published by Karzai’s office
, is not legally binding.
'Women Are Secondary'
The council statement renounces the equality of men and women enshrined in the Afghan Constitution and insists instead that "men are fundamental and women are secondary."
The clerics also supported men's right to commit violence against women in cases where there is a "Shari'a-compliant reason."
But other sections of the document defend women's rights, notably speaking out against forced marriages and the practice of exchanging women as a kind of currency to settle family and tribal disputes.
Overall, however, the statement calls for restrictions that are reminiscent of the Taliban era.
Afghan rights activists have condemned the statement and said they fear the Afghan government is giving in to the Taliban as Kabul tries to reach a peace settlement aimed at ending its decade-long battle with the insurgents.
Under the Taliban, women were barred from receiving an education and working outside the home and could only venture outside if they were wearing a burqa and were accompanied by a male relative.
Ahmad Zia Langari, a commissioner at Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, claimed the council's statement is an injustice that tramples on the dignity of all Afghan women.
"In no Islamic country do we see that women are totally separated from men and cannot work in the same workplace," she said. "Even in Saudi Arabia these kinds of limitations don't exist. Logically, if we suppress women this much -- controlling their movement, conversations, and relations with others -- then we are actually damaging women's dignity as human beings."
The human rights director for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Georgette Gagnon, responded to Karzai's move by urging the Afghan government
to implement laws to eliminate violence against women.
Strict Islamic Practices
The Ulema Council's statement is just the latest sign of the increasing pressure on Afghan women to adhere to strict Islamic practices.
Last month, the Afghan government asked female television presenters to wear head scarves and avoid heavy makeup after conservative members of the upper house of parliament complained about noncompliance with Islamic beliefs.
Karzai’s endorsement of the council's position will almost certainly raise the ire of the Obama administration, which has a history of tensions and differences of opinion with the Afghan leader.
A State Department spokesman in Washington told RFE/RL that U.S. officials are "aware" of Karzai’s comments and are "studying" the matter.
In Germany, Heiner Geissler, a senior politician from the ruling Christian Democratic Union party, warned that Afghan women will suffer when foreign forces withdraw. Geissler said foreign forces should remain in Afghanistan until Afghan police and soldiers are fully prepared to assume responsibility for protecting the rights of all Afghans.
The independent newspaper "Cheragh" said on March 6 that the Ulema Council's statement was "a reminder of dark pages in the history of Afghanistan when terrorists misused the tools of high Islamic education."
The "Daily Afghanistan" newspaper wrote that the many promises made to women about equal rights seem to have been forgotten and that Afghanistan's women seem doomed to become "second-class citizens" as they were under the Taliban.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and Washington correspondent Heather Maher contributed to this report