Afghanistan is to review legislation that the UN said would legalize rape within marriage after a dramatic reversal from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who signed the rules into law last month.
Karzai has bowed to intense international pressure to scrap the law, described by the UN human rights chief in Afghanistan as “reminiscent of the decrees made by the Taliban regime.”
It is said to forbid women to refuse to have sex with their husbands and force them to get spousal permission before leaving the house, looking for a job, going to the doctor or receiving education.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has led the international condemnation of the law, on Sunday saying it would be unacceptable for British soldiers to die defending a regime that enacted oppressive legislation. Brown told Sky News that NATO leaders had attacked the law in the communique issued at the end of their summit in Strasbourg, France, and that Karzai had told him it would not come into force in the way it had been reported.
“I phoned the president immediately about this because anybody who looks at Afghanistan will be worried if we are going to see laws brought in that discriminate against women and put women at risk,” Brown said. “I made it absolutely clear that we could not tolerate that situation. You cannot have British troops fighting, and in some cases dying, to save a democracy where that democracy is infringing human rights. [Karzai] responded by saying this law would not be enacted in the way it has been presented.”
The Afghan president was accused of backing the law to win hardliners’ support ahead of the presidential election. But a Western diplomat said Karzai had been damaged by international criticism of the law, which only applied to the Shiite minority, and was “looking for a face-saving way to drop it.”
Fears have also been raised on the safety of the female parliamentarians who have spoken out. Foreign ambassadors on Sunday met in Kabul to consider a request to pay for bodyguards to protect them.
On Saturday, Karzai rejected international criticism of the law, saying it had been “misinterpreted.” But he promised to send it to the ministry of justice for review and amendment if it was found to conflict with the equal rights provisions in Afghanistan’s Constitution. The final version of the law has not been published, although it was enacted in the middle of last month.
An analysis by the Canadian embassy in Kabul of the version sent by parliament to the president said the law contained a number of articles removing the rights of women. Custody of children is automatically granted to fathers and grandfathers and provision is made for minors to marry, although a later amendment set the age of marriage to the same as Afghan civil law.
The most controversial article says that the wife is “bound to preen for her husband, as and when he desires” and “is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desire of her husband.”
Defenders of the law have pointed out that the legislation was improved by the lower house of parliament, which introduced the concession allowing women to leave their homes without their husbands’ permission if they had a good reason.
Afghan Deputy Minister of Justice Muhammad Qasim Hashimzai said a review had been set up that would include the UN and representatives from diplomatic missions in Kabul.