Afghanistan's U-turn on women's rights

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has turned back the clock to the days of the Taliban, signing a law that strips women of basic rights protected by most civilized nations. The new Shiite Personal Status Law, which applies to the country's Shiite minority, is a disastrous step backward for millions of women, who suffered most under the Taliban's Islamic fundamentalism. It severely restricts their rights in every area of life: A Shiite woman would need her husband's or father's permission to leave the house, pursue an education, hold a job or even go to a doctor's appointment. Only fathers and grandfathers would have child-custody rights, and by stipulating how often a husband is entitled to sex, the law permits marital rape.

Shiites make up 10% to 20% of the country's population, but they are politically important to the president. Critics say Karzai pushed the lawthrough parliament to curry favor with Islamic fundamentalists before the August election, sacrificing women's rights for his political gain. Although the law covers women in one sect, now there is legal precedent to revoke the rights of others. "We are worried that similar laws, including the family laws for Sunnis, could meet the same fate," said Soraya Sobrang of the country's Independent Human Rights Commission, according to news reports.

There have always been conflicting laws, customs and practices in Afghanistan regarding the treatment of women. But after the Taliban regime was routed by the United States in 2001, the country adopted a constitution that prohibits discrimination against women. In 2002, it also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women -- the primary international treaty safeguarding women's rights -- agreeing to repeal or reform laws that discriminate against them. These commitments to equality seemed to bring Afghanistan into the 21st century; the new law is a contradiction of them and a repudiation of progress.

After an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton explained clearly why the country's progress cannot be separated from that of its women. "You cannot expect a country to develop if half its population are underfed, undereducated, under-cared for, oppressed and left on the sidelines," she said. "And we believe strongly that that's not in the interest of Afghanistan or any country."

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