Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai Passes Controversial Law Limiting Women's Rights

Karzai vowed to review bill limiting Shiite women's rights, but backed out.

KABUL, Afghanistan Aug. 14, 2009 — -- A controversial bill that Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised to review before implementing quietly became law last month, allowing police to enforce language that stipulates a wife's sexual duties and restricts a woman's ability to leave her own home.

Karzai had promised to send the bill to parliament before it was published, but this week women's rights advocates learned it had already become an enforceable law despite heavy international and national criticism.

The Shiite Personal Status Law, which applies to the country's minority Shiite women, was originally even more pernicious than the final version. In March a western embassy translated a portion of the law as defining a woman's role as "readiness for sex and not leaving the house without the husband's permission."

Instead, the final language requires Shiite women to give their husband "their sharia rights" when it comes to sex, a reference to Islamic law. And it allows women to leave their own homes "according to local customs."

But human rights advocates say the new language is just legal cover for husbands to subjugate their wives.

"It's symbolic with our society, which is a male dominated society -- it somehow approaches a woman as a second class citizen and approaches a woman more as property than a human being," says Orzala Nemat of the Afghan Women's Network.

Less than one week before Afghanistan holds only its second ever contested election, the news of the law's publishing -- which still has not been widely disseminated -- is unlikely to affect Karzai's expected victory.

But the way it was put on the books is being held by critics of the government as evidence that Karzai has used state machinery and backroom deals to guarantee his reelection. They argue that Karzai initially agreed to push the law through in order to please powerful Shiite clerics, who promised him votes. Shiites represent 10 to 20 percent of Afghanistan.

Law Pleases Shiite Clerics, Who May Now Vote For Karzai

"That's the way this election is being done, through these deals instead of letting the people decide," says Rachel Reid, with Human Rights Watch in Kabul. "This is a government of warlords, behind closed doors, underhanded and opaque."

The passage of the bill surprised most observers, who had expected a more transparent process after international outcry earlier this year. At the time, NATO's secretary general questioned whether western countries should even send their troops to Afghanistan if its government passed a law that "fundamentally violates women's rights and general human rights."

Today at a campaign rally, Frozan Fana, one of two women running to become Afghanistan's next president, said she didn't realize the law became enforceable.

The law's creators, led by Afghanistan's leading Shiite cleric Sheikh Asif Mosheni, argue that it guarantees certain rights to women, most notably financial stability.

"In the West, no one guarantees that. The wife worries about her own expenses," he told ABC News in an interview earlier this year. "Now you tell me. Who is the one not treating women well. Us or the West?"

Mosheni and his supporters say Shiites needed their own law to protect against the majority Sunnis, who make up as much as 90 percent of the country. This was their first chance to implement a law since the Sunni-dominated Taliban were overthrown in 2001.

Other controversial provisions in the law remain the same, critics say. Child custody rights still go to fathers and grandfathers. Women must ask before they get married for permission to work. And a husband can still deny his wife food and shelter if she does not meet his sexual needs.

Afghanistan's parliament still has the ability to rescind the law, but Reid points out it is unlikely to single out this law out of hundreds they have the ability to review.

"Given its makeup, this parliament is unlikely to uphold women's rights," Reid says.

The law exposes a country trying to balance its patriarchal traditions while embracing women's rights as practiced in the Western countries that are pouring billions into this country.