Afghan Shi'ite law on hold for review

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s Justice Ministry said on Monday a law for the country’s Shi’ite minority is on hold and under review after provoking an outcry in the West over concerns about women’s rights.

A burqa-clad Afghan woman walks in an old bazaar in Kabul March 4, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Shi’ite Muslims account for some 15 percent of the population of mainly Sunni Muslim Afghanistan and the wide-ranging Shi’ite Personal Status Law aims to enshrine differences between the two sects.

Critics say the law legalizes marital rape, and some lawmakers allege Karzai signed it hastily because he faces a crucial election on August 20 and wants to curry favor with Shi’ite voters, who could help swing the contest.

U.S. President Barack Obama has called the law “abhorrent.”

The Justice Ministry said it would not publish the law in the country’s official gazette, which would bring it into effect.

“The Justice Ministry is working on the law, and on those articles which were problematic, and for the time being the law is not going to be published,” a ministry spokesman said.

But supporters of the law say it is an important defense of minority rights and traditions that was debated on and off for two years before being approved by both chambers of parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai.

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After it drew criticism from Afghanistan’s Western allies, Karzai promised on Saturday the justice minister would speak on it in detail, but he has not yet done so.

A copy of the unpublished law seen by Reuters states “a wife is obliged to fulfill the sexual desires of her husband” when she is healthy and has to wear make-up if her husband demands it.

Article 137 also says a woman cannot inherit any of her husband’s wealth when he dies, a provision that already applies to Sunni Muslim women under Afghan law.

Amendments made to the Shi’ite law show the marriage age for women was raised to 16 from 9 and that a woman would be allowed to leave her home unaccompanied for medical treatment, to go to work or for her education.

The draft law also contains some articles which provide more rights to women, compared to the existing civil law.

For instance, a Shi’ite woman can divorce her husband if he cannot provide for her, if he cannot satisfy her in bed or if he is absent for a period of time.

A husband must provide accommodation for his wife and a woman is not required to spend any of her income on the household and family, unless her husband is unable to work.

The United States, Canada, Britain and the United Nations have spoken out against the law. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on Friday it might also make it harder for member states to boost troops battling Taliban insurgents.

Karzai said on Saturday such criticisms were based on a wrong translation or misinterpretation of the law, and a copy he had seen did not reflect the criticisms and concerns of Afghanistan’s Western backers.

Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Jeremy Laurence