The Afghan Battle Over A Law To Protect Women For nearly three years, the Afghan parliament has tried to pass a law banning violence against women. Supporters say they've made concessions to address conservatives' concerns. But critics say the proposal still violates Islamic law.

The Afghan Battle Over A Law To Protect Women

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A law that criminalizes violence against women in Afghanistan has been awaiting passage in that country's parliament for years. President Hamid Karzai issued the elimination of violence against women law by decree back in 2009, but parliament has been unable to pass it and give it permanence. That's because of disagreements about many of the law's provisions. More from NPR's Sean Carberry in Kabul.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: About 200 activists marked Valentine's Day by marching through Kabul. They were participating in One Billion Rising, a global movement to call attention to the issue of sexual violence against women. But in Kabul, this was not a one-time thing. There are frequent demonstrations here by women's organizations.

That's because most activists say the gains made in women's rights since the fall of the Taliban are slipping away. That's why parliamentarians like Masooda Karokhi have been working for the last few years to pass the law protecting women from violence.

MASOODA KAROKHI: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: She says it's been a long and difficult battle, and one they can't afford to lose. If the legislation fails to pass, she says it will irreversibly harm women's rights. That's why she and her colleagues continue to negotiate with the religiously conservative members of parliament who oppose the law.

KAROKHI: (Through translator) We have made some changes in the proposed law. We've increased some punishments, decreased others and made some concessions.

CARBERRY: The Afghan Constitution says that all laws must be in compliance with Islamic law, or Sharia. At issue are a range of provisions, such as whether women can pursue an education or even leave the house without her husband's permission, and also punishments for men who commit violence against women.

HOSSEIN BALKHI: (Though translator) This law proposes that if a man commits a sexual assault, he will be sentenced to 16 years in jail, while under Islamic law, that man should be executed.

CARBERRY: Hossein Balkhi is a member of parliament who says the law is necessary. But, he says, most of the proposed provisions violate Islam and need to be changed. He says Sharia is stricter in many of its punishments than the proposed law. One of the more contentious issues is the age of marriage. Balkhi says the international community is trying to push Western values on marriage. But he says, under Islam, a father decides when his daughter is ready to wed.

But that notion doesn't sit well with Shukria Barakzai. She's a parliamentarian who wrote the constitutional article on women's rights.

SHUKRIA BARAKZAI: Sixteen years old, under, cannot marry. This is a crime.

CARBERRY: She says the Afghan Supreme Court has ruled there is a minimum age for marriage and that shouldn't be a subject of debate. There are many views about what Islam says about women and their rights.

ENAYATULLA BALEGH: Here, the interpretation and definition of violence against women is very different from the West.

CARBERRY: Enayatullah Balegh is an adviser to the president and a member of Afghanistan's Council of Religious Scholars.

BALEGH: (Through translator) If a woman is on TV dancing or singing, this is one of the most violent acts against a woman.

CARBERRY: Balegh says Sharia already provides clear rules and punishments regarding violence against women, so the proposed law is unnecessary.

BALEGH: (Through translator) This is a democratic thing being imposed upon us.

CARBERRY: And what makes matters more complicated is that Afghanistan has no clear procedure to evaluate whether proposed laws conform to Sharia.

BALKHI: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: MP Hossein Balkhi says parliament needs to form an ad hoc committee of religious scholars to evaluate the provisions of the law and issue a majority decision. Fellow MP Shukria Barakzai agrees in principle, but worries there are few legitimate Sharia scholars in parliament.

BARAKZAI: If we have religious scholars in the parliament, who are interpreting all these religious issues for the benefit of human, that's different. Right now, we don't have any.

CARBERRY: Which means it's doubtful the legislation will come to a vote anytime soon and demonstrations are likely to continue. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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