Image: Afghan female officers create barrier for protesters
Musadeq Sadeq  /  AP
Afghan female police officers create a barrier for Shiite counter protesters during a march in Kabul on Wednesday. The group of some 1,000 Afghans swarmed a demonstration by 300 women protesting against a new conservative marriage law. Some men pelted the women with stones as police struggled to keep the groups apart.
updated 4/16/2009 5:00:25 PM ET 2009-04-16T21:00:25

There are a handful of them at every women's rights gathering in Afghanistan: men.

Even though crowds of men threw stones and shouted insults at women this week protesting a restrictive marriage law that critics say legalizes marital rape in Afghanistan, a few men marched and chanted alongside the women.

These are the men — many of them prominent male politicians and intellectuals — who are taking up the battle for women's rights and calling for change in this patriarchal society. The act of solidarity is more than just a bright spot — activists say men's support for women's rights is vital in a country where men hold sway in government and in families.

Many people working on women's issues agree: to empower the women, you first need to enlist the men.

Sherwali Wardak, who runs women's literacy and small business training programs in rural Afghanistan, said the key to getting women involved is to convince the men in their lives to allow it.

"The most important factor of working with women is to encourage the men to allow their women to enroll in the rehabilitation or development project," Wardak said.

When he doesn't get permission from the men, Wardak says they often don't let their wives or daughters leave the house to travel to the centers he sets up. He says he's received threats because of the work he does.

"They write, 'Close this project because it is working for Christianity,'" he said. It's a common accusation of those who support women's rights in Afghanistan — that the advocates are stooges of the Christian West.

'Death to you dogs'
Crowds that swamped a group of women protesting a law Wednesday they say legalizes marital rape were full of similar vitriol. The law gives a husband the right to demand sex every four days and regulates when a woman can leave the house. The law is not being enforced pending a judicial review ordered by Afghanistan's president after the legislation sparked an international uproar.

"Death to you dogs!" and "Death to the slaves of the Christians!" the men shouted at the protesters. Some picked up stones and threw them at the women.

Men, who are the main breadwinners in nearly all Afghan households, take a certain degree of risk in this conservative country when they support women's freedoms in public. In Afghanistan, anyone who opposes the conservative clerics who back such laws can quickly become a political and social pariah.

But a number of male lawmakers and even Cabinet ministers have denounced the law — along with many prominent women. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta drafted a petition against it that was signed by more than 100 Afghan officials and public figures, including six government ministers and 22 lawmakers.

Video: For Afghan women, home isn’t where the heart is

In an interview, Spanta said he expected he would have had signatures from most of the administration, except they tried to get the petition out quickly and he didn't have time to ask everyone.

Even so, the minister of women's affairs was not among the signatories. A spokesman for her office said the minister was waiting for the review to finish before taking a position.

Spanta said he felt impelled to draft the declaration because otherwise he would be deserting human rights.

"They can write about me what they will but I will work for equality," Spanta said. "I will sign a declaration like this even if I am alone in this country to do that. I know this is a dangerous approach."

Life under fundamental rule
The complicated nature of the debate is apparent even in the actions of President Hamid Karzai, who has long been a vocal supporter of women's rights, but who signed the controversial marriage bill into law last month. The administration has said Karzai was not aware the articles limiting women's mobility and right to refuse sex were in the document he signed.

However, Zia Moballegh, who advises the government on family law reform, said the justice minister told him not to expect the review to be completed before the end of Karzai's term. The statement adds fuel to accusations that Karzai may have signed the law to court conservative votes in an upcoming August election.

Reached by phone, Justice Minister Mohammad Sarwar Danish said no timetable has been established for the review. He would not predict when it might be completed.

As with many of the women fighting for greater freedoms in Afghanistan, many male supporters are young or have lived abroad — a trend that has added power to conservative arguments that the cry for equal rights comes from people corrupted by the West.

Spanta, for example, says he became a women's rights advocate during his time living in Germany.

Some of those working on programs to help women say Afghanistan's young men have been neglected in the international push to get women caught up after the oppressive years of Taliban rule. The fundamentalist regime banned girls from attending school, forced women to wear an all-covering burqa, and barred them from leaving home without a male relative as an escort.

'Find jobs for the men'
Hassina Sherjan, who runs accelerated learning programs for children who are years behind in school, said she initially opened only girls' programs because that's what she could get funding for. She's just recently received funding allowing her to start similar programs for boys.

"They're still focusing on women, which is crazy because women's lives will not get better until we educate the men and find jobs for the men," Sherjan said.

At Wednesday's protest, one young man — who had taken two hours off from his office job to join the demonstration against the law — said he could see the shock in the eyes of the counter-protesters because he was on the other side of the police cordon.

"I believe in freedom and equality. For me, men and women are the same," the young man said. Still, he didn't want to give his name or place of work for publication, saying he didn't want to be harassed.

More on Afghanistan

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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