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Karzai backs strict guidelines for women

Karzai’s backing of the guidelines may be intended to make his own government more palatable to the Taliban.

KABUL - Afghanistan’s president endorsed a “code of conduct’’ on Tuesday issued by an influential council of clerics, guidelines that activists say represent a giant step backward for women’s rights in the country.

President Hamid Karzai’s remarks Tuesday backing the Ulema Council’s document, which allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances and encourages segregation of the sexes, is seen as part of his outreach to insurgents like the Taliban.

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The United States and Karzai hope the Taliban can be brought into negotiations to end the country’s decadelong war.

But activists are worried that gains made by women since 2001 may be lost in the process.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan prior to the 2001 US invasion, girls were banned from going to school and women had to wear burqas that covered them from head to toe. Women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative as an escort.

The “code of conduct’’ issued Friday by the Ulema Council as part of a longer statement on national political issues is cast as a set of guidelines that religious women should obey voluntarily, but activists are concerned it will herald a reversal of the trend in Afghanistan since 2001 to pass laws aimed at expanding women’s rights.

Among the rules: Women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places like schools, markets, or offices.

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Beating one’s wife is prohibited only if there is no “Shariah-compliant reason,’’ it said, referring to the principles of Islamic law.

Asked about the code of conduct at a press conference in the capital, Karzai said it was in line with Islamic law and was written in consultation with Afghan women’s groups. He did not name the groups consulted.

“The clerics’ council of Afghanistan did not put any limitations on women,’’ Karzai said, adding: “It is the Shariah law of all Muslims and all Afghans.’’

Karzai’s public backing of the council’s guidelines may be intended to make his own government more palatable to the Taliban, or he may simply be trying to keep on the good side of the Ulema Council, which could be a valuable intermediary in speaking to the insurgents.

But either way, women’s activists say, Karzai’s endorsement means existing or planned laws aimed at protecting women’s rights may be sacrificed for peace negotiations.

“It sends a really frightening message that women can expect to get sold out in this process,’’ said Heather Barr, an Afghanistan researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. “This represents a significant change in his message on women’s rights.’’

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