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Female activists condemn Afghan marriage law

Women's rights activists allege that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has used a loophole to enact a law allowing husbands to refuse food to their wives if they deny them sex.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Women's rights activists alleged Monday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has used a constitutional loophole to enact a law that allows minority Shiite Muslim husbands to refuse food and money to their wives if they deny them sex.

The activists suspect Karzai took the step to appease conservative Shiite clergy ahead of Thursday's presidential election. Nearly 20 percent of Afghans are Shiites and could become an influential voting block as Karzai contests for a new five-year term.

The legislation, which governs many aspects of family life for Afghanistan's Shiites, has been sparking controversy since Karzai signed an earlier version in March. Critics said the original legislation essentially legalized marital rape and Karzai quickly suspended enforcement after governments around the world condemned it as oppressive and a return to Taliban-era repression of women.

But the revised version, made public in July, riled activists all over again because many restrictive articles remained, including one that appears to give a husband the right to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex with him.

Law approved by decree
Female parliamentarians said they thought they would get the chance to fight for revisions, only to discover in recent days that Karzai had taken advantage of a legislative recess to approve the law by decree. Parliament has the right to examine and change the law when they reconvene but the law stays in effect in the meantime.

Presidential spokesmen could not be reached for comment.

Afghanistan's post-Taliban constitution enshrines equal rights for women, but in practice, discrimination is still rife.

The new law includes a section saying that a husband must provide financially for his wife. It also says that he can withhold this support if she refuses to "submit to her husband's reasonable sexual enjoyment," according to a translation of the article supplied by New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In Afghanistan, where most women are uneducated and depend on their husbands for food and clothing, the article could be used to justify a husband starving a wife who refuses to have sex with him.

The legislation was passed by presidential decree in mid-July and published in Afghanistan's official gazette on July 27, which brings the law into force, according to Human Rights Watch. Lawmakers confirmed the process.

‘I was really shocked’
Shinkai Kharokhel, a lawmaker who has been involved in reforming the legislation, said no one from the administration told her that the law was being approved without further debate. Instead, she had to learn thirdhand that the law she had been fighting was now in effect.

"I was called by a friend, and then a few people from the embassies. And I said, 'I have to check with the minister.' I was really shocked," she said. "My understanding was that it would be sent to parliament. I never thought it would just be published."

With a large backlog of legislation to debate and the sensitivity of the issue, it's unclear if parliament will revisit the Shiite marriage law anytime soon.

"I think the chances of this being discussed in parliament in the next year or so are low and the chances of improvements being made are lower. So as far this law, I think we're stuck with it," said Rachel Reid, an Afghanistan researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Kharokhel said she felt like the women of Afghanistan had been pushed to the side to appease powerful Shiite men who were worried that legislation would not get passed if they waited until after Thursday's election.

"I am sure it is Shiite leaders pushing the president of the country so that as soon as possible they would get a law," she said.

Step toward worse treatment?
Although the law applies only to Shiites, women activists fear the law is a step toward the Taliban's draconian treatment of women.

Many of the Shiites belong to the Hazara ethnic minority. Influential Shiite clerics have thrown their support behind Karzai for this years vote, and Karzai, who belongs to the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, has kept a Hazara leader, Karim Khalili, as his candidate for second vice president.

Female lawmakers, however, say it's unlikely the enactment of the law will affect women's choice of candidate for the elections, because so few women are aware of the law or how it would apply to their lives.

"They really don't know what the law says and how they will use that law ... and we have women who are ashamed to knock on the door of a court to ask for their rights," said Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker from Kabul.