Afghan marriage law stirs activists
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KABUL -- Women's rights activists alleged yesterday 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 that Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Karzai signed an earlier version in March. Critics said the original legislation essentially legalized marital rape, and Mr. 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.
Female parliamentarians said they thought they would get the chance to fight for revisions, only to discover in recent days that Mr. 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 it reconvenes, 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 a husband must provide financially for his wife. It also says 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 July 27, which brings the law into force, according to Human Rights Watch. Lawmakers confirmed the process.
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 against 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.
Although the law applies only to Shiites, women activists fear that the law is a step toward the Taliban's draconian treatment of women.
First Published August 18, 2009 12:00 am