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Afghans protesting new marriage law pelted by stones

The Globe and Mail

Kandahar, Afghanistan — Swarms of angry men shouting epithets and hurling stones confronted hundreds of Afghan women who staged a rare public protest Wednesday against a law that allows husbands to demand sex from their wives.

Although many were prevented from attending the Kabul protest — some by their husbands and others by public transportation workers who refused them access to buses — about 300 women managed to gather in front of the hard-line Khatam Al Nabi mosque for two hours Wednesday morning.

"It was a risky protest," said Sabrina Saqib, a 28-year-old member of the lower house of Afghanistan's National Assembly and one of the protest organizers. "We had to show that there is solidarity among women in Afghanistan. We are asking for justice."

The aim of the protest, Ms. Saqib said, was to show that Afghan women are just as outraged at the new Personal Status Law as the international community. Passed quietly last month, the legislation — it applies only to the minority Shia Muslims, which make up 10 to 20 per cent of Afghanistan's 30 million people — requires, among other things, that women submit to sex with their husbands every four days with few exemptions. It also regulates when and why women can leave their homes.

Ms. Saqib said parliament passed the law unusually quickly and without debate because it was part of a package of laws; the controversial articles were buried.

News of its passage, however, caused international outrage. Last week, President Hamid Karzai responded by ordering a Justice Department review of what has been dubbed the "rape law." The review is expected to take between two and three months. However, many Afghans worry that the review will be overshadowed by the August presidential election and that the issues it creates surrounding women's rights will go unaddressed.

That, the protesters said, will not be satisfactory.

"In this law, it shows women are the property of men," said protester Fatima Hussaini. "We are not the property of men. We are equal," she said.

The unusual protest prompted a widespread backlash in the Afghan capital. At the mosque, which is home to Mohammad Asif Mohseni, the influential Shia cleric who has been an outspoken supporter of the law, a large group made up mostly of men gathered to counter the women. Some of the policemen assigned to keep the two groups apart joined the protest, shouting threats at the women.

"They were swearing, telling the women to go back home," Ms. Hussaini said.

In a western neighbourhood of the city populated mainly by Shiites, a girls' school was attacked and vandalized after several teachers attempted to leave and attend the protest, Ms. Saqib said.

More women would have attended, she said, but many feared suffering similar repercussions. The same fear has kept other members of parliament from publicly expressing their opposition to the law, even though it has been widely rejected by Shiites of both sexes. Their silence has created a vacuum into which advocates of the legislation have stepped, denouncing the international community for imposing its values on Afghanistan and stirring what they claim is false opposition.

Ms. Saqib said the opposition has nothing to do with international influence.

"The reality is that in Afghanistan, it is the man who has the power," she said, adding: "This is not something that we have to put into law. This is a relationship between two people. They can, themselves, manage how to deal with it."

Ms. Saqib and several other women have asked Mr. Karzai for a meeting on Saturday to discuss amendments to the law and restoring accountability to the parliamentary process.

"We want the parliament of Afghanistan to concentrate on justice and the human rights of women in any law-making decisions," she said.

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