A new Afghan law makes it legal for men to rape their wives, human rights groups and some Afghan lawmakers said, accusing President Hamid Karzai of signing the legislation to bolster his re-election prospects.
Critics worry the legislation undermines hard-won rights for women enacted after the fall of the Taliban’s strict Islamist regime.
The law — which some lawmakers say was never debated in parliament — is intended to regulate family life inside Afghanistan’s Shiite community, which makes up about 20 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million people. The law does not affect Afghan Sunnis.
One of the most controversial articles stipulates the wife “is bound to preen for her husband as and when he desires.”
“As long as the husband is not traveling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night,” Article 132 of the law says. “Unless the wife is ill or has any kind of illness that intercourse could aggravate, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.”
One provision also appears to protect the woman’s right to sex inside marriage saying the “man should not avoid having sexual relations with his wife longer than once every four months.”
The UN Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM, said the law “legalizes the rape of a wife by her husband.”
“The law violates women’s rights and human rights in numerous ways,” a UNIFEM statement said.
The strongest criticism came from Canada, a country that has lost 116 soldiers fighting the Taliban and spent up to US$8 billion to support the Karzai government.
“The concept that women are full human beings with human rights is very, very central to the reason the international community is engaged in this country,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in London, where he’s attending the G20 summit.
Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said he would use this week’s NATO summit to put “direct” pressure on his Afghan counterparts to abandon the legislation.
The issue of women’s rights is a continuous source of tension between the country’s conservative establishment and more liberal members of society. The Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 banned women from appearing in public without a body-covering burqah and a male escort from her family.
Much has improved since then. Millions of girls now attend school and many women own businesses. Of 351 parliamentarians, 89 are women.
But in this staunchly conservative country, critics fear those gains could easily be reversed.
Fawzia Kufi, a lawmaker who opposed the legislation, said several of its articles undermine constitutional and human rights of women as equals and take the country backward.
Karzai has not commented on the law. A spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the president is “aware of the discussion surrounding the law, and is looking into the matter.”
Brad Adams, the Asia director for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the law is a “dramatic setback for women’s rights.”
Safia Sidiqi, a lawmaker from Nangarhar province who condemned the legislation, said she could not remember parliament debating or even voting on the law and she did not know how it came to be signed by Karzai. She called for the law to be recalled to parliament for debate.
Sayed Hossain Alemi Balkhi, a Shiite lawmaker involved in drafting it, defended the legislation, saying British media reports that it could legalize marital rape and prohibit women from leaving home without the permission of their husbands.