Afghan Law Ignites Debate On Religion, Sex

April 11, 2009

Author: Pamela Constable

Source: The Washington Post

When Afghanistan's government quietly enacted a sweeping law last month restricting the rights of minority Shiite women, few Afghans were aware of what it said. But since the law's contents became known here just over a week ago, it has provoked an extraordinary public debate on the once-taboo topic of religion and sex in this conservative Muslim nation and spurred an unprecedented protest by senior officials.

The law, which was approved by parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai, codifies proper behavior for Shiite couples and families in the most intimate detail. It requires women to seek their husband's permission to leave home, except for "culturally legitimate" purposes such as work or weddings, and to submit to their sexual demands unless ill or menstruating.

Initially seen as a political gesture to the country's Shiites, who make up 20 percent of the population and have long sought legal recognition of their religious beliefs, the law has become a political nightmare for a government struggling to balance conflicting pressures from traditional and modernizing forces at home and abroad.

Not only has the law been denounced by the major Western governments on which the poor, insurgent-plagued country depends for economic and military aid, but it has also spurred a formal protest by several cabinet members and more than 200 other Afghan leaders, who said it treats women as "objects" and could lead to a new "Talibanization" of Afghanistan.

"I could not keep silent any longer," said Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, one of the most prominent figures to sign the protest statement.