- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan‘s president on Tuesday endorsed a “code of conduct” issued by an influential council of clerics that activists say represents a giant step backward for women’s rights in the country.

President Hamid Karzai’s remarks backing the Ulema Council’s document, which allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances and encourages segregation of the sexes, is seen as part of his outreach to insurgents such as the Taliban.

Both the United States and Mr. Karzai hope that the Taliban can be brought into negotiations to end the country’s decadelong war. But activists say they’re worried that gains made by women since 2001 may be lost in the process.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan before the 2001 U.S. invasion, girls were banned from going to school and women had to wear burqas that covered them from head to toe. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative as an escort.


The “code of conduct” issued Friday by the Ulema Council as part of a longer statement on national political issues is cast as a set of guidelines that religious women should obey voluntarily, but activists are concerned it will herald a reversal of the trend in Afghanistan since 2001 to pass laws aimed at expanding women’s rights.

Among the rules: Women should not travel without a male guardian, and women should not mingle with strange men in such places as schools, markets or offices. Beating one’s wife is prohibited only if there is no “Shariah-compliant reason,” it said, referring to the principles of Islamic law.

Asked about the code of conduct at a press conference in the capital, Mr. Karzai said it was in line with Islamic law and was written in consultation with Afghan women’s groups. He did not name the groups that were consulted.

“The clerics' council of Afghanistan did not put any limitations on women,” Mr. Karzai said. “It is the Shariah law of all Muslims and all Afghans.”

Mr. Karzai’s public backing of the council’s guidelines may be intended to make his own government more palatable to the Taliban, or he simply may be trying to keep on the good side of the Ulema Council, who could be valuable intermediaries in speaking to the insurgents.

But either way, women’s activists say that Mr. Karzai’s endorsement means that existing or planned laws aimed at protecting women’s rights may be sacrificed for peace negotiations.

“It sends a really frightening message that women can expect to get sold out in this process,” said Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Shukria Barikzai, a parliamentarian from the capital, Kabul, who has been active in women’s issues, said she was worried that Mr. Karzai and the clerics' council appeared to be ignoring their country’s own laws.

“When it comes to civil rights in Afghanistan, Karzai should respect the constitution,” Ms. Barikzai said. The Afghan Constitution provides equal rights for men and women.

The exception for certain types of beatings also appears to contradict Afghan law, which prohibits spousal abuse. And the guidelines also promote rules on divorce that give women few rights, a real turnaround from pledges by Mr. Karzai to reform Afghan family law to make divorces more equitable, Ms. Barr said.

“This represents a significant change in his message on women’s rights,” she said.

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