Afghan Marriage Law Prompts Protests

Supporters and opponents of a new marriage act stage rival demonstrations in Afghanistan. Foreign and domestic critics say the measure is unfair to women. President Karzai has ordered a judicial review.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In Kabul today, a rare protest over women's rights. Things turned violent when a much larger number of counter-protestors swarmed the group. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was at the demonstration, and she filed this report.

(Soundbite of protestors)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Protected by Afghan police in riot gear, more than 100 young women gathered behind the parliament building to protest a law they and western critics say legalizes marital rape. The women chanted, hear our voices, parliament, and we want this law changed. They were outnumbered by mostly male counter-protestors, who at one stage shouted insults and threw small stones at the women.

At issue was a new family code that defines the marital rights of Afghan men and women in the country's Shiite Muslim minority. Some of its provisions, like a man's right to demand sex from his wife and her obligation to wear makeup if he desires it, have drawn international condemnation.

The law was recently passed by parliament and signed by President Hamid Karzai. One of the organizers of the protest is Shakila Hidadi(ph), a university student who is an ethnic Hazara and a Shiite, and therefore subject to the controversial law.

(Soundbite of protestors)

NELSON: How do you feel about this law?

Ms. SHAKILA HIDADI: Oh, terrible. You know, just terrible. I don't feel safe, you know, I mean, about this law. It's just, no, it's kind of insulting, you know.

(Soundbite of protestors)

NELSON: The protest drew women from Afghanistan's other ethnic and religious groups, too, like businesswoman Hassina Serjan(ph), who is half Tajik, half Pashtun and a Sunni Muslim.

Ms. HASSINA SERJAN: What's the difference between us and the Taliban? I mean, we're constantly worried about what women should do. I mean, don't men have anything better to do than worrying about how women should please men? Is that the only function of women?

(Soundbite of protestors)

NELSON: Kabul lawmaker Abbas Noyan, a Hazara and a Shiite who acknowledges voting for the law, says he came out to support the protestors.

Mr. ABBAS NOYAN (Legislator, Afghanistan): I voted for the law, but I was against this article. But unfortunately it is not a pass through regular way that - like any other laws to be read and explained article by article.

NELSON: Noyan's confusion highlights the problem since word of the family code leaked out. There are several drafts and conflicting accounts of what the law actually says. Mounting public pressure both here and abroad led Karzai to order the measure shelved until it can be reviewed and revised if necessary.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: As the even larger counterdemonstration showed, Karzai also is under pressure from conservatives here not to kowtow to the west. Some of the male protestors shouted, death to the slaves of the Christians, while others held up banners calling for adherence to Islamic law in Afghanistan.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Outside the parliament building, one of the women who organized the protest against the law was in tears as she tried to attract the attention of lawmakers. She says the girls took a huge risk coming here. She asks, couldn't the girls at least present their case directly to the speaker of the lower house of Parliament? A few moments later, word came back that the speaker would meet with 10 of them.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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