Afghan cleric defends contentious marriage law


Associated Press

April 11, 2009 at 9:18 AM EDT

KABUL — A key backer of an Afghan law that critics say legalizes marital rape and rolls back women's rights rejected an international outcry as foreign meddling on Saturday and insisted the legislation offers women many protections.

The law, passed last month, says a husband can demand sex with his wife every four days unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse, and regulates when and for what reasons a wife may leave her home alone.

The legislation has raised the spectre of the deposed hard-line Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The strict Islamist regime required women to wear body-covering burqas and banned them from leaving home without a male relative.

Following an international uproar, in which President Barack Obama called the law “abhorrent,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai put it under review. The move puts enforcement on hold.

Mohammad Asif Mohseni, a top Afghan cleric who was one of the law's main drafters, said the legislation cannot be revoked or changed because it was enacted through a legislative process — passed by both houses of parliament and signed by Mr. Karzai. He condemned the outcry, saying Western countries were trying to thwart democracy when results did not please them.

“The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights,” Mr. Mohseni told reporters in the capital, Kabul.

Surrounded by supporters, Mr. Mohseni unfurled reams of paper with hundreds of women's signatures and thumbprints backing the law. The legislation came out of three years of debate and revision involving both Islamic scholars and members of parliament, Mr. Mohseni said.

Afghanistan is an Islamic state and its constitution defers to the Quran as the ultimate authority. Mr. Mohseni said the law simply reiterates rules from Islam's holy book.

“In Shariah law, it states that a woman cannot go out without the permission of her husband,” he said. He argued that the law is permissive because it allows a woman to go out for a medical emergency or other urgent reason without asking beforehand. In addition, a couple can agree to opt out of this rule when signing a marriage contract, he said.

Mr. Mohseni said much of the uproar has come from people misinterpreting the law. He said a woman can refuse sex with her husband for many reasons beyond illness. For example, he said, a woman may be fasting for Ramadan, preparing for a pilgrimage, menstruating, or just given birth.

Mr. Mohseni also argued that the law can be interpreted to mean simply sleeping in the same room as a couple every four nights, but an Associated Press translation of the pertinent article suggests this reading is unlikely.

The law says that every fourth day a man “can pass the night with his wife, unless it is harmful for either side, or either of them is suffering from any kind of sexual disease. It is essential for the woman to submit to the man's sexual desire.”

“If she is not sick, and if she does not have another problem, it is the right of a man to ask for sex and she should make herself ready for it. This is the right of a man,” Mr. Mohseni explained.

Though the law only applies to the country's Shiite population — 10 per cent to 20 per cent of Afghanistan's 30 million people — Mr. Mohseni, the country's top Shiite cleric, said most of the articles could also be applied to Sunnis. A prominent Sunni cleric, Mawlawi Habibullah Ahsam, said the rules about women submitting to sex and leaving the home would also be acceptable to Sunnis.

Not everyone is happy with the law in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, dozens of Afghan lawmakers and officials condemned the legislation, saying it encourages re-Talibanization.

The law contradicts the country's constitution and human rights, treating women as objects rather than subjects, they said in a declaration. The Afghan Constitution states that both men and women “have equal rights and duties before the law.”

Much has improved for women since the fall of the Taliban. Millions of girls now attend school, and many women own businesses. Of 351 parliamentarians, 89 are women. But in the conservative country, critics fear those gains could easily be reversed.

Mr. Mohseni argued that women and men are very far from equal in today's Afghanistan and should not be treated as such. He pointed out that many rural women are illiterate and would not be able to find work if they were asked to provide some of the family's financial support. Men are typically the breadwinners in Afghan households, expected to provide for their wives and children.

“It is not possible for all women to pay the same amount of money as men are paying. For all these expenses, can't we at least give the right to a husband to demand sex from his wife after four nights?” he said.