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Afghan Legislators Call Law Protecting Women “Un-Islamic”

Islamic lawmakers in Afghanistan have blocked a law that to protect women, arguing that parts of it violate Islamic principles.

Among the law’s provisions are measures to criminalize child marriage and ban the traditional practice of selling and buying women to settle disputes. It also criminalizes domestic violence and specifies that rape victims should not face charges for fornication.

The Islamists also opposed the law because they said that it would encourage women to have sex outside of marriage.

The failure to pass the law highlights how shaky women’s rights remain a dozen years after the overthrow of the Taliban. The “Law on Elimination of Violence Against Women” has been in effect since 2009 by presidential decree. However, it was brought to a parliamentary vote by Fawzia Koofi, lawmaker and women’s rights activist, to prevent the law’s reversal by any future president attempting to appease hard line religious parties.

"We want to change this decree to a law and get the vote of parliament for this law,” said Koofi, who is herself running for president in next year’s elections. "Unfortunately, there are some conservative elements who are opposing this law. What I am disappointed at is there are also women who are opposing this law."

The ban on child marriage and the idea of protecting female rape victims from prosecution has become a heated debate in parliament, said Nasirullah Sadiqizada Neli, a conservative lawmaker from Daykundi province. Neli suggested that removing the custom, which is very common in Afghanistan, of prosecuting raped women for adultery would lead to chaos, with women engaging in extramarital sex safe in the knowledge they could claim rape if caught.

Khalil Ahmad Shaheedzada, a hard-line conservative lawmaker for the Herat province, said the legislation was withdrawn shortly after being introduced in parliament because of fierce opposition from religious parties who said that parts of the law are un-Islamic. “Whatever is against Islamic law, we don’t even need to speak about it,” Shaheedzada said.

Shaheedzada also claimed that the law might encourage promiscuity among girls and women, saying it reflected Western values not applicable in Afghanistan. "Even now in Afghanistan, women are running from their husbands. Girls are running from home," he said. "Such laws give them these ideas."

Heather Barr, a researcher for Human Rights Watch said, "There's a real risk this has opened a Pandora's box, that this may have galvanized opposition to this decree by people who in principle oppose greater rights for women."

Many legislators feel that President Hamid Karzai should never have issued the decree and wants it changed, if not repealed. "We cannot have an Islamic country with basically Western laws," one of them said.

The freedoms the women now enjoy are one of the most visible and symbolic changes in Afghanistan since the 2001 campaign that toppled the Taliban. Aside from their support for al-Qaeda, the Taliban are probably most notorious for their harsh treatment of women under their severe interpretation of Islamic law.

For five years, the regime banned women from working and going to school, or even leaving home without a male relative. In public, all women were forced wear a head-to-toe burqa. Violators were publicly flogged or executed. Freeing women from such draconian laws lent a moral air to the Afghan war, but many are concerned that these freedoms could shrink once NATO-led forces leave the country at the end of next year.

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