- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | The Afghan president said Saturday that he had ordered a review of a new law that critics say makes it legal for men to “rape” their wives, responding to criticism from around the world that included sharp comments from President Obama.

The law, signed by President Hamid Karzai last month, is intended to regulate family life inside Afghanistan’s Shi’ite community, which makes up 10 percent to 20 percent of the country’s 30 million people. Under one article legislating the frequency of sexual relations between Shi’ite husbands and wives, a husband has the right to sex every fourth night unless the wife is ill.

The United Nations Development Fund for Women has said the law “legalizes the rape of a wife by her husband.”

Asked about the law at a news conference Saturday after the NATO conference in Strasbourg, France, Mr. Obama described it as “abhorrent.” He said the United States is communicating its views to the Karzai government.

“We think that it is very important for us to be sensitive to local culture, 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,” Mr. Obama said.

Even before Mr. Obama’s comments, Mr. Karzai said he had ordered the Justice Ministry to review the law, and if anything in it contravenes the country’s constitution or Shariah law, “measures will be taken.”

The issue of women’s rights is a 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 burqa and a male escort from her family.

Now, millions of girls attend school and many women own businesses. Of 351 parliamentarians, 89 are women.

But in the staunchly conservative country, critics fear those gains could easily be reversed. Fawzia Kufi, a lawmaker who opposed the legislation, said the law undermines all advances for Afghan women in the past seven years.

Mr. Karzai did not mention the controversial article Saturday, but said he had studied the law earlier in the day and “I don’t see any problems with it.”

He complained that Western media outlets had mistranslated it. He read an article of the law during the news conference that appears to restrict Shi’ite women’s right to leave their homes, though Mr. Karzai underscored a provision that allows women to leave in emergencies.

Still, he said the law should be reviewed in consultation with scholars and religious leaders.

Critics have accused Mr. Karzai of signing the law to court Shi’ite votes in the country’s August presidential election.

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