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KABUL (Reuters) - A new Afghan law that has drawn Western condemnation for restricting women's rights does not allow marital rape as its critics claim, but lets men refuse to feed wives who deny them sex, the cleric behind it says.
Ayatollah Mohammed Asef Mohseni's Shi'ite personal status law sparked controversy abroad because of a provision that "a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband."
This was read by some as an open door to marital rape, and together with clauses restricting women's freedom of movement denounced as reminiscent of harsh Taliban-era rules.
The law has been criticized by Western leaders with troops fighting in Afghanistan, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who called it "abhorrent."
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who signed the law last month, has since put it under review.
But Mohseni said the law -- which only applies to the 15 percent of Afghans who are Shi'a Muslims -- has been misinterpreted by critics. Its sexual clauses aimed only to ensure men's sexual needs were met within marriage, because Islam prohibited them seeking satisfaction with other women.
"Why should a man and woman get married if there is no need for a sexual relationship? Then they are like brother and sister," he told Reuters in an interview in his recently built central Kabul mosque and university complex.
A man and wife can negotiate how often it is reasonable to sleep together, based on his sex drive, and a woman has a right to refuse if she has a good reason, said the bearded cleric.
"It should not be compulsory for the wife to say yes all the time, because some men have more sexual desires than others," he said, adding that husbands should never force themselves on their wives and the law does not sanction that.
But women do have a duty to meet their husband's needs.
"If a woman says no, the man has the right not to feed her," Mohseni said. The law allows women to work, so they could theoretically refuse sex and support themselves, but in mainly rural Afghanistan most women are dependent on husbands.
The law is milder than the severe restrictions imposed by the Sunni Muslim Taliban, who banned all women and girls from any work or study, and from leaving the home without a male relative. But opponents still consider it a step backwards.
They also want to strike down a provision that says women can leave their home freely for work, education or medical care, but otherwise require their husband's permission to go out.
Mohseni said this was not a final word -- if women want more freedom of movement, they can ask for it to be included in their marriage contract: "If he says no, she can marry someone else."
But in Afghanistan most marriages are arranged and women's low social status would make it hard for most to refuse a union.
Another measure in the law described as demeaning by rights groups is a requirement that women wear makeup if their husbands wish. The soft-spoken cleric said this was to protect relationships.
"When men venture outside they see lots of other women with makeup, but he comes home and finds his own wife with a dirty face," Mohseni said.
"This is mentioned to encourage men to have more interest in a social and personal life with his wife."
Opponents of the law say it codifies traditional practices that are in fact not required by Islam.
Qazimiya Muhaqaq, professor of Political Science at Katib University and one of a group of women involved in a street demonstration against the law this week, told a news conference on Thursday the law makes women bow to their husbands.
"A woman and man must satisfy each other, it's natural, they are in a relationship. But this law states that whenever a man wants, the woman is obliged to satisfy her husband," she said.
Reuters asked Mohseni several times if he could detail the religious reasons for restricting women's movements, and requiring them to wear makeup, but he did not provide them.
Mohseni has been closely following the international debate about the law, condemning NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for his criticism and saying U.S. President Barack Obama had spoken in ignorance when he called it "abhorrent."
The cleric had hoped that after speaking about the law last week its critics would seek him out to get a better understanding of its contents, but said he was disappointed by them.
"After my press conference I was expecting a delegation from the West to come and meet me but they are just playing politics." "Without proper reading people make their own opinions about the law, which I really regret," he added.