PRAGUE — President Obama expressed opposition to a new Afghan law sanctioning the oppression of women in society Saturday, but suggested the U.S. would continue its mission in that country regardless.
The law, signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week, codifies sharia, or Islamic law, creating restrictions on when women can leave their homes – saying they can only do so “for a legitimate purpose.” It would forbid wives from either being educated or employed without the express permission of their husbands.
The provision receiving the most attention requires wives to meet the sexual needs of their husbands. “Unless the wife is ill, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband,” the law states, which critics say would legalize marital rape.
The law applies to Shiites, which represent approximately 15% of the population in Afghanistan.
“I think this law is abhorrent,” President Obama said at a news conference in Strasbourg, France, at the conclusion of a NATO Summit. “Certainly the views of the administration have been, and will be, communicated to the Karzai government. And we think that it is very important for us to be sensitive to local culture, but we also think that there are certain basic principles that all nations should uphold, and respect for women and respect for their freedom and integrity is an important principle.”
That said, Mr. Obama suggested that whatever the law stands or not will not affect his new strategy for Afghanistan, with its narrower mission. While President Bush spoke as recently as last December about creating a “flourishing democracy” in Afghanistan, his successor has stated no such goals, and in fact did not use the word “democracy” when discussing that country in his major policy address last week.
“I want everybody to understand that our focus is to defeat al Qaeda and ensure that they do not have safe havens from which they can launch attacks against the Alliance,” President Obama said.
Mr. Obama’s comments stand in contrast with those of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who told the BBC on Friday that NATO troops “are there to defend universal values and when I see, at the moment, a law threatening to come into effect which fundamentally violates women’s rights and human rights, that worries me.”
Added the Secretary General, “how can I defend — or how can the British government defend, the Canadian government, the Dutch government — that our boys and girls are dying there in the defense of universal values and you see a law, almost come into effect not yet there is still a possibility not to sign, which fundamentally violates women’s rights and general human rights?”
On Saturday, Karzai suggested that “the Western media have either mistranslated or taken incorrect information and then published it. If there is anything in contradiction with our Constitution or sharia, or freedoms granted by the Constitution, we will take action in close consultation with the clerics of the country.” He said he would review the law.
But experts suggest no one is mistranslating anything.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement that the law “is another clear indication that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse not better. Respect for women’s rights – and human rights in general – is of paramount importance to Afghanistan’s future security and development. This law is a huge step in the wrong direction.”
She said the law “is extraordinary, reprehensible and reminiscent of the decrees made by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s.”
Asked if US troops might be less motivated to fight such a mission, President Obama said “our troops are highly motivated to protect the United States.”
He said “we want to do everything we can to encourage and promote rule of law, human rights, the education of women and girls in Afghanistan, economic development, infrastructure development, but I also want people to understand that the first reason we are there is to root out al Qaeda so that they cannot attack members of the Alliance.”