Asia Crisis

Afghan Shi'ites demand ratification of women's law

(For full coverage of Afghanistan, click on [ID:nSP508289])

KABUL, June 27 (Reuters) - About 1,000 Afghan Shi'ite Muslims rallied in Kabul on Saturday to demand the ratification of a controversial law which contains harsh provisions on women some critics have called a step back towards Taliban-era rules.

The Shi'ite Personal Status Law applies to Shi'ites who make up about 15 percent of Afghanistan's roughly 30 million people. It requires women to satisfy their husband's sexual appetites, which critics have said could be used to justify marital rape.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called the law "abhorrent" and the United Nations and other rights groups have called for it be scrapped or changed. It has been under review by Afghanistan's Ministry of Justice since May.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who approved the law earlier this year, was forced to review the decision after Western leaders and Afghan women's rights groups expressed dismay.

"The law was approved by the president. But because of criticisms by some people, it's been delayed ... these people are here to show how much support there is for the law," Shi'ite cleric Sayed Hossein Alemi Balkhi told Reuters on the sidelines of the rally, which was attended by about 300 women.

Other provisions of the law require wives to get permission when leaving the home unless for employment, education or medical reasons, and to allow a man to order his wife to wear make-up.

Balkhi dismissed concerns from rights groups and female Afghan politicians that the law could be used to justify marital rape, saying their claims were incorrect.

"We are prepared to sit down with Western lawmakers and discuss the law, theological issues aside ... our point is that this law actually goes beyond Western laws in terms of protecting women's rights," Balkhi said.

"Western law says that women do not need to obey men and men do not have to determine women's expenses ... but here the principle is that the wife's expenses should be met by the husband ... he needs to buy his wife's food, clothes, even her make-up, and when she is ill he must look after her," he said.


The rally was staged at the turquoise-domed Khatam-ul-Nabiin mosque being built by the law's main backer, Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni.

"Let them sort out the problems of their own women before they start telling us how to solve ours," said Zeinab Nabavi, a 22-year old student and one of the rally organisers.

"These problems ... these are a matter of theology and faith, the West has no right to interfere," she said.

Like most women sitting in a female-only section under a makeshift canopy, Nabavi wore a long, black chador, the billowing Islamic covering popular in neighbouring majority-Shi'ite Iran.

Balkhi dismissed suggestions the law was an attempt to impose Iranian-style rules on Afghanistan's Shi'ite minority, who were persecuted under the Taliban's strict Sunni Muslim regime.

"Iran is one country, Afghanistan is another. This is not just a law for Iran or Afghanistan," he said.

Nabavi said women would continue to obey the law even if it was not ratified again. " ... practically speaking, from a social point of view, it's happening anyway," she said.

Editing by Paul Tait