Afghanistan’s new laws could make it difficult to persuade European countries to contribute more troops to the country, said Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s head. (photo, from cbc.ca, taken on Oct. 29, 2008)
He said that when Nato troops are dying in order to protect universal values, the planned laws are unjustifiable because they violated human rights.
The law limits the rights of women from the Shia minority and authorises rape within marriage, critics said.
Aides to President Karzai insist the law provides more protection for women.
“We are there to defend universal values and when I see, at the moment, a law threatening to come into effect which fundamentally violates women’s rights and human rights, that worries me”, Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the BBC’s Mark Mardell.
He added: “I have a problem to explain and President Karzai knows this, because I discussed it with him. I have a problem to explain to a critical public audience in Europe, be it the UK or elsewhere, why I’m sending the guys to the Hindu Kush.”
“Sharp concern” at the law has also been expressed by France’s Human Rights minister, Rama Yade. She said it “recalls the darkest hours of Afghanistan’s history”.
‘Bound to give a positive response’
Earlier, the UN said the potential impact of the law concerned them.
According to human rights activists, the new laes reverse many of the freedoms won by Afghan women in the seven years since the Taleban were driven from power.
They say it removes the right of women to refuse their husbands sex, unless they are ill. Women will also need to get permission from their husbands, or a male relative, if they want to leave their homes, unless there is an emergency. Women will only be able to seek work, education or visit the doctor with their husbands’ permission.
The United Nations Development Fund for Women prepared a briefing document which also warns that the law grants custody of children to fathers and grandfathers only.
The law says that a wife “is bound to preen for her husband as and when he desires.”
“As long as the husband is not travelling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night”, Article 132 of the law says.
“Unless the wife is ill or has any kind of illness that intercourse could aggravate, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.”
One provision says a “man should not avoid having sexual relations with his wife longer than once every four months.”
The law applies to members of Afghanistan’s Shia minority, who make up 10% of the population. Critics say the Afghan government approved it in a hurry to win support in the upcoming election from ethnic Hazaras, a Shia Muslim minority that constitutes a crucial block of swing voters and which also demanded the new law.
Yet, although Ustad Mohammad Akbari, an MP and the leader of a Hazara political party, said the president had supported the law in order to curry favour among the Hazaras, he said the text actually protected women’s rights.
“Men and women have equal rights under Islam but there are differences in the way men and women are created. Men are stronger and women are a little bit weaker; even in the west you do not see women working as firefighters.”
Mr Akbari said the law gave a woman the right to refuse sexual intercourse with her husband if she was unwell or had another reasonable “excuse”. He also said that a woman would not be obliged to remain in her house if an emergency forced her to leave without permission.
The text was rushed through parliament in February and was backed by influential Shia clerics and Shia political parties.
Senator Humaira Namati, a member of the upper house of the Afghan parliament, said the law was “worse than during the Taliban”. “Anyone who spoke out was accused of being against Islam”, she said.
Defenders of the law say it is an improvement on the customary laws which normally decide family matters.
A separate family law for the Sunni majority is now also being drawn up.
Soraya Sobhrang, the head of women’s affairs at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said western silence had been “disastrous for women’s rights in Afghanistan”.
“What the international community has done is really shameful. If they had got more involved in the process when it was discussed in parliament we could have stopped it. Because of the election I am not sure we can change it now. It’s too late for that.”
Nato is holding its annual summit in Strasbourg, where US president Barack Obama will present his new Afghan strategy to his allies.
Several leading charities warned before the meeting, that an increase in military deployments in Afghanistan could lead to a rise in civilian casualties.
They called on Nato leaders to do more to protect the population.
More than 2 000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year.
In a report titled Caught in the Conflict, 11 aid groups such as Oxfam, ActionAid and Care, called on Nato to change the way it operates.
“The troop surge will fail to achieve greater overall security and stability unless the military prioritise the protection of Afghan civilians”, said Matt Waldman, head of policy for Oxfam International on Afghanistan.