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Worldview: Slow gains for Afghan women

A controversial law on marriage is a testing ground in their long struggle.

Last spring, I wrote from Kabul about the controversy over a law that would have restored Taliban-style restrictions on women and legalized marital rape. President Hamid Karzai remanded the law for further study after an international furor. But late last month, with an eye toward gaining conservative religious votes in tomorrow's presidential election, he quietly issued the law without resubmitting it to parliament.

"There was deliberate obfuscation by the government," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, whom I reached by phone in Kabul. "Compared to the earlier international outcry, there has been remarkable silence this time around."

Indeed, the ongoing struggle over this law is a sobering reminder of the fragility of the gains made by Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban, and of how much those women need our support.

While some Afghan women now sit in parliament and hold jobs, and millions of girls attend primary school, those improvements are threatened. The Taliban controls large swathes of the country where schools for girls are being burned and female students are being attacked. Karzai, whose popularity has waned, has proposed negotiations with the Taliban.

The Afghan leader also looks to minority groups to bolster his political standing. So it's not surprising that he was willing to consider a law proposed by hard-line members of the Shiite minority, who received religious training in Iran.

The original version of the measure, known as the Shia Personal Status Law, would have prevented women from the Shiite minority from leaving home without "legitimate reasons" and forced them to have marital sex on demand unless ill. However, some brave Afghan women, including members of parliament and civil-society leaders, fought back.

These women recognized that laws meant for the Shiite minority would set a precedent for all Afghan women. Emboldened by support from Western and Afghan civil society, they met with Karzai (who claimed he'd been unaware of the details) and insisted on revisions.

Yet the amended version still reminds one of the Taliban era. Shinkai Karokhail, a courageous member of parliament, said by phone from Kabul that she is still disturbed by parts of the law.

Among them is a loophole that would continue to permit child marriage. And although marital sex is no longer compulsory under the amended version, the law permits a husband to withdraw all support from his wife if she doesn't fully "respect the marital relationship," including conjugal duties.

At a meeting with Karzai, Karokhail argued that Iranian courts are more lenient in defining women's marital duties than the Afghan law is; she asked the president to consider the Iranian definition. Karzai, pressed by Shiite hard-liners, held firm.

The law's restrictions on women's freedom of movement have been somewhat loosened. A woman can now leave the house for "legal reasons" in "accordance with local customs." Some human-rights activists believe this phrasing still permits a husband to forbid a wife from working or studying.

Karokhail nevertheless said the changes are "fantastic!" Why? She and fellow activists managed to delete a phrase that would have permitted a woman to leave the home only if it didn't disturb marital relations.

"We said 'No!' " Karokhail recounted. "And now, no permission is necessary for a woman to work, and a woman's income belongs to her."

Talking to Karokhail makes clear the compromises Afghan women must make to achieve achingly slow progress in a highly traditional society. Female activists acquiesced in some restrictions in the law lest they undercut prospects for a domestic-violence law issued by Karzai the same day, which forbids men from beating their wives.

And so Karokhail, who risks endless threats and slurs for her work, will press on. She believes there is still a chance for parliament to amend the Shiite marriage law in the future.

When I asked her what she expects if Karzai wins a second term, she replied: "I trust the women's movement more than any man in this country. Women have become more aware of how to raise their voices and demand their rights. They can't exclude us or ignore us."

Yet, as the Taliban fights on and politicians make deals that sacrifice women's rights, Afghan women will need continued international backing if they are to move forward, not back.