Karzai sells out Afghan women over law-rights group

KABUL Fri Aug 14, 2009 5:15pm IST

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai waves to his supporters during an election campaign at a stadium in Herat, western Afghanistan August 14, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai waves to his supporters during an election campaign at a stadium in Herat, western Afghanistan August 14, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Raheb Homavandi

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KABUL (Reuters) - A leading rights group accused President Hamid Karzai on Friday of selling out Afghan women by ratifying a Shi'ite law, which has drawn wide condemnation over its harsh provisions on women, before next week's election.

Karzai, who approved the law earlier this year, was forced to review the decision after Western leaders and Afghan women's rights groups expressed dismay at provisions on women's rights some people said were reminiscent of Taliban-era restrictions.

An amended version of the Shi'ite Personal Status Law was submitted last month and published in the official gazette on July 27, bringing it into effect weeks ahead of the Aug. 20 presidential poll, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

"Karzai has made an unthinkable deal to sell Afghan women out in return for the support of fundamentalists in the August 20 election," said Brad Adams, Asia director for HRW.

"So much for any credentials he claimed as a moderate on women's issues," he said in a statement.

The legislation is meant to govern family law for minority Muslim Shi'ites, who make up about 15 percent of Afghanistan's roughly 30 million people, and is different to that for the majority Sunni population.

It requires women to satisfy their husband's sexual appetites, an article which critics have said could be used to justify marital rape and which provoked an outcry from Afghanistan's Western allies and rights groups around the world.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called the law "abhorrent".

"SOME IMPROVEMENTS"

Karzai has said Western concerns about the law were "inappropriate" and may have been based on "misinterpretations" but promised last April to make changes if it was found to violate the constitution.

Wahid Omar, a spokesman for Karzai's presidential campaign, said he could not comment on any decision Karzai had taken as the president. A presidential spokesman was not immediately available for comment on Friday, the national weekend.

HRW said the amended law did show "some improvements" but still contained some of its "most repressive" articles that directly contravene the Afghan constitution, which bans any kind of discrimination and distinction between citizens.

The amended law gives a husband the right to withdraw basic maintenance from his wife, including food, if she refuses to obey his sexual demands and requires women to get permission from their husbands to work, according to HRW.

The law also grants guardianship of children exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers and effectively allows a rapist to avoid prosecution by paying "blood money" to a girl who was injured when he raped her, HRW said.

"These kinds of barbaric laws were supposed to have been relegated to the past with the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, yet Karzai has revived them and given them his official stamp of approval," said Adams.

Fatemeh Hosseini, an Afghan women's rights activist, said Karzai had been stuck between the two sides but in the end had given in to conservative Muslim clerics.

"Karzai promised he would make changes and he has brought changes. But the changes are only in the wording, the context is the same," said Hosseini, who advises German aid group GTZ.

"Karzai is trying to please both sides but for them, the mullahs are more important than women," she said.

HRW said the Afghan parliament should overturn the law and has called on presidential candidates to amend or repeal it.

(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)

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