Asia Crisis

Law for Afghan Shi'ites stirs anger and concern

(Adds U.N. human rights chief in paragraphs 13-14)

KABUL, April 2 (Reuters) - A new law for Shi'ite Muslims in Afghanistan has provoked anger among some lawmakers while the United Nations has said it is seriously concerned about the law's potential impact on women's rights in the former Taliban state.

The new law passed by parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai, but not yet promulgated in the official gazette, is meant to legalise minority Shi'ite family law, which is different than that for the majority Sunni population.

The U.N.'s agency for women, UNIFEM, said in a statement it had yet to study the final draft of the Shi'ite Personal Status Law -- copies of which are not widely available -- but said it "remains seriously concerned about the potential impact of this law on the women of Afghanistan."

British media have reported that the law, which affects only Shi'ite Muslims who make up some 15 percent of Afghanistan's population, could legalise marital rape and prohibit women from leaving the home without the permission of their husbands.

But lawmaker Sayed Hussain Alem Balkhi, who was involved in debating the bill in parliament, told Reuters it contained "no such thing" and that the reports were "propaganda".

"This bill stipulates lots of leniencies compared to the civic laws that have been around for 40 years. For example, (under the new law) a Shi'ite woman can seek divorce if her husband is not able to feed her or he disappears for a long time," Balkhi said.

"A Shi'ite woman can go out for medical treatment, to see her parents without the permission of her husband, while this freedom is not enshrined in the civic law," he said.

Women's rights in Afghanistan have significantly improved in Afghanistan since the 2001 overthrow of the strict Sunni Islamist Taliban government. It prohibited women from working, attending school or leaving their homes without a male relative.

But Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative Muslim society, particularly in remote rural areas.

Some parliamentarians said the law is a major step backwards for Afghan women and that Karzai approved it to appease Shi'ite voters ahead of crucial Aug. 20 elections.

"Karzai just signed it so as not to cause any problems," parliament member Shinkai Karokhail said.

"It will be a shame, on Karzai, on the parliament and on the speaker," she said, adding she had appealed to the U.S. embassy and the United Nations for help, but was ignored.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the law represented a step backwards for Afghanistan's women and a "clear indication that the human rights situation in Afghanistan is getting worse not better".

"For a new law in 2009 to target women in this way is extraordinary, reprehensible and reminiscent of the decrees made by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s," the South African former war crimes judge said in a statement by her office issued in Geneva.

One Afghan government official involved in processing the law, who declined to be named, said the only part of the law which was contentious in parliament was an article allowing Shi'ite men to take a temporary wife.

But Karokhail, who is among a group of women parliamentarians against the law, said it contained several articles that would seriously damage women's rights.

One would legalise the marriage of girls from the age of nine and another said a woman had to wear make-up if her husband demanded it.

"I cannot support this law, personally I really feel hurt ... it will really increase brutality in our lives," she said.

"We have a civil law, we want to improve that and make that better but I think even that is at least much better than this Shi'ite law." (Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Laura MacInnis in Geneva; Editing by Jerry Norton)