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Women’s rights legislation is stymied in Afghanistan

Bid to amend law is withdrawn from Parliament

An Afghan woman peered through the eye opening of her burka as she waited to try on a new one in a shop in Kabul. Women have few protections under the law.

Anja Niedringhause/Associated Press/File

An Afghan woman peered through the eye opening of her burka as she waited to try on a new one in a shop in Kabul. Women have few protections under the law.

KABUL — Afghan women, and sometimes even little girls, are sold or traded to pay family debts.

So-called honor killings are a constant threat to women, especially in the country’s vast rural areas, where even talking to a man who is not a close relative can be perceived as a transgression punishable by death.

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Betrothals of girls as young as age 7 are not unknown; in some parts of the country, girls are routinely married at puberty.

The only law that at least attempted to hold families accountable for such treatment is now itself in danger, as the country’s tiny women’s rights movement faces an unenviable decision: leave the law intact despite its flaws or continue to try to present changes to Parliament, where a growing conservative movement could dismantle the protections entirely.

The dangers of trying to amend the law became evident Saturday when a bid to add more robust protections was rapidly withdrawn in Parliament amid stinging rebukes.

Angry mullahs and conservatives who never supported the law in the first place complained that the law and the proposed revisions were un-Islamic and asked who could better decide than they who and when their daughters should marry.

Some women in Parliament were not supportive either, citing the measure’s backing of shelters for battered women. Many Afghans believe shelters are seen as brothels and tarnish a girl’s reputation.

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The protests were strong enough that it became clear that even the law’s minimal legal protections could be at risk if the debate continued. The proposal for revisions was sent back to the committee that had worked on it.

The push to bring up the law at all had split Afghanistan’s small women’s rights community in recent days, with fears that the conservatives would undo it entirely battling a sense that quick action had to be taken before the exit of the United States, after which conservatism will most likely gain strength.

“We know who is in the Parliament,’’ said Soraya Sobrang, a women’s rights activist and part of a hastily organized effort to stop the law from coming up in Parliament, referring to the former militia commanders, mullahs, and other conservatives who take a dim view of many of the Western-backed changes in Afghanistan.

What would stop them, she asked, ‘‘from pulling a list from their back pocket’’ of changes that would weaken the protections against child marriage or even rape?

The drive to amend the law was led by one of Afghanistan’s more visible champions for women’s issues: Fawzia Koofi, who gained a seat in Parliament in 2005.

‘‘There is a step back on women’s issues,’’ Koofi said in explaining her drive to revise the legislation in the plenary session of Parliament this weekend. ‘‘The government used to be more supportive.’’

Closely allied with the predominantly Tajik former Northern Alliance faction in Parliament, Koofi has often been criticized as pursuing policies for her own political gain. She has insisted that her motivation to amend the women’s law was meant to help solidify it, though not all supporters of women’s rights here agree.

Koofi said the proposed changes would allow the government to prosecute cases of abuse even when the woman who had been abused withdrew her claim.

She said she also added a provision prohibiting sexual harassment, saying it is becoming increasingly pervasive as more women go to work in offices. And, she said, she included a provision to require men to pay women child support if they leave them or take other wives.

Her prime worry is that because the law was issued in 2009 as a decree by President Hamid Karzai, it might be annulled by another president. Elections will he held in less than a year, and Parliament’s endorsement would enshrine the law more securely, she argues.

But other women’s advocates want to skip such a debate to safeguard the protections that are already in place.

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