KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's parliament failed to pass a law on Saturday banning violence against women, a severe blow to progress made in women's rights in the conservative Muslim country since the Islamist Taliban was toppled over a decade ago.
President Hamid Karzai approved the law by decree in 2009 and parliament's endorsement was required. But a rift between conservative and more secular members of the assembly resulted in debate being deferred to a later date.
Religious members objected to at least eight articles in the legislation, including keeping the legal age for women to marry at 16, the existence of shelters for domestic abuse victims and the halving of the number of wives permitted to two.
"Today, the parliamentarians who oppose women's development, women's rights and the success of women...made their voices loud and clear," Fawzia Koofi, head of parliament's women's commission, told Reuters.
Women have won back the hard-fought right to education and work since the Taliban was toppled 12 years ago, but there are fears these freedoms could shrink once NATO-led forces leave Afghanistan by the end of next year.
Increasing insecurity is deterring some women from seeking work outside the home, and rights workers accuse the government of doing too little to protect women - allegations rejected by Karzai's administration.
"2014 is coming, change is coming, and the future of women in this country is uncertain. A new president will come and if he doesn't take women's rights seriously he can change the decree," Koofi said of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Law, which goes by the acronym EVAL.
The election for a new president is expected to be held in April 2014. The constitution bars Karzai from running again.
After almost two hours of clashes between Koofi and the more religious members of the 244-member parliament, speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi said the assembly would consider the law again at a later date, but declined to say when.
Some members sought amendments, such as longer prison terms for crimes committed against women, such as beating and rape.
Many lawmakers, most of them male, cited violations of Islamic, or Sharia law.
"It is wrong that a woman and man cannot marry off their child until she is 16," said Obaidullah Barekzai, a member from southeast Uruzgan province, where female literacy rates are among the lowest in the country.
An Afghan man must be at least 18 years old to marry.
Barekzai argued against all age limits for women, citing historical figure Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddiq, a close companion of the Prophet Mohammad, who married off his daughter at age seven.
At least eight other lawmakers, mostly from the Ulema Council, a government-appointed body of clerics, joined him in decrying the EVAL as un-Islamic.
Abdul Sattar Khawasi, member for Kapisa province, called women's shelters "morally corrupt". Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb last year dismissed them as houses of "prostitution and immorality", provoking fierce condemnation from women's groups.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Ron Popeski