By Carlotta Gall and Sangar Rahimi
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – President Hamid Karzai ordered a review on Saturday of a new law that has been criticized internationally for introducing Taliban-era restrictions on women and sanctioning marital rape.
The president defended the law, which concerns family law for the Shiite minority, and said Western news media reports were misinformed. Nevertheless, he said his justice minister would review it and make amendments if the law was found to contravene the Constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees.
“The Western media have either mistranslated or taken incorrect information and then published it,” Mr. Karzai said at a news briefing in the presidential palace on Saturday. “If there is anything in contradiction with our Constitution or Shariah, or freedoms granted by the Constitution, we will take action in close consultation with the clerics of the country.”
If changes are needed, he said, the bill would be sent back to Parliament.
Human rights officials have criticized the law, in particular for the restrictions it places on when a woman can leave her house, and for stating the circumstances in which she has to have sex with her husband.
A Shiite woman would be allowed to leave home only “for a legitimate purpose,” which the law does not define. The law also says, “Unless the wife is ill, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.” Critics have said that provision legalizes marital rape.
The law also outlines rules on divorce, child custody and marriage, all in ways that discriminate against women, said Soraya Sobhrang, commissioner for women’s rights at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
While the law applies only to Shiites, who represent approximately 10 percent of the population, its passage could influence a proposed family law for the Sunni majority and a draft law on violence against women, Ms. Sobhrang said. “This opens the way for more discrimination,” she said.
Mr. Karzai signed the law last week after a vote in Parliament last month, Ms. Sobhrang said, adding that she had seen a copy of the law with his signature.
However, the presidential spokesman, Homayun Hamidzada, would not confirm that the president had signed the law and said only that the he was still reviewing it.
Mr. Karzai’s decision to review the law came after a storm of criticism in recent days. Canada called in the Afghan ambassador for an explanation, and NATO’s secretary general questioned why the alliance was sending men and women to fight in Afghanistan when discrimination against women was condoned by law.
“We think that it is very important for us to be sensitive to local culture,” he said, “but we also think that there are certain basic principles that all nations should uphold, and respect for women and respect for their freedom and integrity is an important principle.”
Also on Saturday, Italy’s defense minister said Italy was considering a temporary withdrawal of the women serving in its force in Afghanistan to protest the law, Reuters reported.
The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, said the law represented a “huge step in the wrong direction.”
“For a new law in 2009 to target women in this way is extraordinary, reprehensible and reminiscent of the decrees made by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s,” Ms. Pillay said in a statement posted on her agency’s Web site. “This is another clear indication that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, not better.”
In addition to the clauses on when women may leave the home and must submit to their husbands, Ms. Pillay said she was concerned about a section that forbids women from working or receiving education without their husband‘s permission.
Ms. Sobhrang, who has been working on the issue for the last two years, said women’s groups and the human rights commissions had worked with Parliament to introduce amendments but then the law was suddenly pushed through with only three amendments. The bill as originally drawn up by Shiite clerics barred a woman from leaving the house without her husband’s permission, she said. The parliamentary judicial commission amended that provision to say that a woman could leave the house “for a legitimate purpose.”
Mr. Karzai cited that provision in a news conference on Saturday, pointing out that the final version of the law did not ban a woman from leaving her house. But Ms. Sobhrang said even as amended the law contravened the Constitution, which recognizes equal rights for men and women. The term “for a legitimate purpose” was open to interpretation, she added.
She said Mr. Karzai had supported women’s rights in the past but seemed to have given that up in recent months. Some Western officials have speculated that he signed the law to win the support of conservative Shiite clerics in coming presidential elections.
Yet the leading cleric behind the Family Law, Sheik Muhammad Asif Mohseni, complained last week that he was dissatisfied with the amendments that Parliament had made to his original draft. Speaking on his own television channel, Tamadun Television, he objected to the introduction of a legal age for marriage, “16 for women and 18 for men,” saying that people should be able to decide for themselves.
Human rights officials consider raising the marriage age a critical step toward ending the common practice of forced marriages and the marriage of young girls.
Another amendment gave women longer custody of young children in the case of divorce. In the original draft, women could have custody of a son until he was 2 years old, and a daughter until she was 7. The amended version raises the ages to 7 for boys and 9 for girls.
Ms. Sobhrang criticized both versions for not taking into account the interests and desires of the children.