For Afghan women, new edicts a throwback to the Taliban era

A woman stands next to a graffiti that reads "Freedom" during a demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's regime in the outskirts of Idlib, northern Syria, Sunday Feb. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)   | Photo Credit: Rodrigo Abd

Women are subordinate to men, should not mix in work or education and must always have a male guardian when they travel, according to new guidelines from Afghanistan's top clerics which critics say are dangerously reminiscent of the Taliban era.

The edicts appeared in a statement that also encouraged insurgents to join peace talks, fuelling fears that efforts to negotiate an end to a decade of war, now gathering pace after years of false starts and dead ends, will come at a high cost to women.

“There is a link with what is happening all over the country with peace talks and the restrictions they want to put on women's rights,” said Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi, who warned that the new rules were a “green light for Talibanisation”.

The points agreed at a regular meeting of the Ulema Council of top clerics are not legally binding. But the statement detailing them was published by the President's office with no further comment, a move that has been taken as a tacit seal of approval.

“Ultimately, I don't see a way you can read it as not coming from Karzai,” said Heather Barr, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It's probably not an extreme position for the Ulema Council, but it's an extreme position for Karzai, and not compatible with the Constitution, or Afghanistan's obligations under international law.” The clerics renounced the equality of men and women enshrined in the Afghan Constitution, suggesting they consider the document that forms the basis of the Afghan state to be flawed from a religious perspective.

“Men are fundamental and women are secondary,” the statement says, according to a translation by Afghan analyst Ahmad Shuja. “Also, lineage is derived from the man. Therefore, the use of words and expressions that contradict the sacred verses must be strictly avoided.” The statement drew criticism in Parliament, where some politicians took it as a direct assault on the Constitution and the wider government. If a ban on men and women working and studying together were implemented, it would in effect dissolve the legislature.

“The statement is against the Constitution, against human rights and against women's rights,” said Ahmad Shah Behzad, a member of Parliament from western Herat province, who warned that Mr. Karzai risked being in dereliction of his duty to protect the Constitution.

The clerics also appeared to condone violence against women in some circumstances.

“Teasing, harassment and beating of women without a sharia-compliant reason, as set forth clearly in the Glorious Koran, is prohibited,” the statement said, though it then called for punishment of those who assault women.

There were some positive points in the list of women's rights given before the list of their obligations, Ms. Barr said. Most notably it denounces forced marriage and the practice of exchanging women to settle family disputes over money or honour.

But overall, the statement marks a disturbing return to the language and ideology of the Taliban, said Nader Nadery, a former commissioner on Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission and an advocate for women's rights.

“It renews some of the restrictions that were imposed during their rule, and therefore it could be alarming should it influence government policies,” Mr. Nadery said. In focusing on the status of women, the clerics are ignoring issues that worry ordinary Afghans more, Ms Koofi added.

“The country has a lot of other priorities, and the religious scholars need to come forward and condemn those issues that people are concerned about, like suicide bombers or corruption.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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