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Afghanistan: New Law Threatens Women’s Freedom

Shia Personal Law Should Be Repealed or Amended to Protect Rights

(New York) - The government of Afghanistan should listen to the Afghan women who are planning to hold a protest on April 15, 2009, at great personal risk, and repeal or reform the Shia Personal Status law, Human Rights Watch said today.

The new law regulates marriage, divorce, and inheritance for the country's Shia population. It includes provisions that require a woman to ask permission to leave the house except on urgent business, a duty to "make herself up" or "dress up" for her husband when demanded, and a duty not to refuse sex when her husband wants it.

"President Karzai should not sacrifice women for short-term political deal-making," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "He is playing with fire. How will he be able to refuse demands for similar discriminatory laws from other communities?"

Women in parliament complained that the law was rushed through with the help of several prominent Shia leaders. Despite calls from women's rights advocates not to sign the law, President Hamid Karzai signed it in an apparent attempt to garner political support from powerful political factions in Afghanistan.

The provisions of the Shia Personal Status Law directly contradict the Afghan constitution, which bans any kind of discrimination and distinction between citizens of Afghanistan. Article 22 states that men and women "have equal rights and duties before the law." The law also contravenes the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Afghanistan is a state party.

"All that Afghan women want is to be free, this is what we are demonstrating for," one Afghan activist helping to organize the protest told Human Rights Watch. "This law is ridiculous, women cannot believe it is real. It tries to take away our freedoms, so we have to speak out against it."

While Karzai has asked the Ministry of Justice to review the law, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the review will not be independent because those leading the process in the Ministry of Justice are from a conservative Shia background. Human Rights Watch welcomed the strong concerns about the law expressed by many other governments, including the US, the UK, France, Italy, and Canada, as well as NATO, but said that they need to keep the pressure on to make the necessary changes in the law and ensure the rights of women more generally.

"The Afghan government has made commitments to protect women's rights," said Adams. "The government needs to act on that commitment and repeal or amend a law that so disastrously infringes on their basic freedoms."

Many activists who have spoken out against the law have received threats. The fears of women activists have been compounded by the killing this week of a prominent women's rights campaigner and local councillor, Sitara Achakzai, who was shot dead in Kandahar after receiving death threats.

Civil society activists have told Human Rights Watch that the government's handling of the Shia law leaves them even more concerned about plans by the Karzai government to enter into talks with the Taliban.

"Any deals with the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups should not be at the expense of women's rights," said Adams. "What small gains that have been won by women in Afghanistan must not be up for negotiation."

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