Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Monday, 27 April 2009 13:28 UK

Afghan women's law highlights rift

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kabul

Protesters against Afghanistan's new marriage laws for the Shia community
Dozens of protesters in Kabul had argued against the law...

It was an extraordinary scene. Dozens of young women recently gathered in the centre of Kabul to demonstrate against a new law.

The legislation states that a woman from the country's Shia minority must have sex with her husband whenever he desires.

It also says that a woman must wear make-up when her husband demands as well as placing restrictions on women's movements.

Following an international outcry, Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to review the law.

Critics say the reason President Karzai signed the legislation last month was to shore up support among conservative clerics ahead of this summer's presidential election.

On Sunday, women activists said he had told them he signed it without reading it properly.

The issue highlights not only the divisions in Afghan society but challenges Western expectations.

Little influence

When the Taleban were overthrown almost eight years ago it was regarded as a major victory for women.

Protest in Kabul
... but there were also strong counter-protests

Under the rule of the Islamic fundamentalists, women were effectively barred from education and leaving their homes.

Many in the West thought that the burkhas - the Islamic garment that covers a woman from head to toe and is regarded by some as a symbol of oppression - would come off. That did not happen.

Yes, there has been progress. Young girls go to school and women go to university. Access to health care for women has improved. Women now work outside their homes. Some choose to wear the headscarf instead of the burkha.

And on paper at least, women have power. Because of quotas, a quarter of all members of parliament are female. But that representation has not translated into power.

Fawzia Koofi, a female member of parliament, says that women have "little political influence".

We follow our husbands anyway, so there's no need for this legislation
Afghan student

She says that women like her are interested in protecting modest gains - such as the right to an education and to go to work rather than any Western-style liberation.

Some women and human rights activists also worry about the constant rumblings of possible reconciliation with the Taleban and other anti-government insurgents to end the conflict.

They feel that their hard-won - yet modest - freedoms could be washed away.

But this remains a deeply conservative society, where loyalties to religion, family and tribe are dominant.

A group of young female university students I spoke to were angry about the law because it intruded into their personal lives rather than over its actual contents.

As one student put it: "We follow our husbands anyway, so there's no need for this legislation."

And in Afghanistan there is a stark divide in attitudes between the city and the countryside - and numerous other regional variations.

By Afghan standards, the cities are relatively liberal. In the villages, it is Islam and custom that govern.

I visited a village an hour's drive from the capital Kabul.

None of the women I spoke to attending a pottery class had heard of the new legislation. All were shrouded from head to toe.

But one of the women told me that she counted herself lucky to be attending the course.

"Some families are so strict here," she said, "that their women aren't allowed to go to their neighbour's house."

Whether it is in the village or the city - women still do not have much say here.

The women protesting against this law were the exception - it is men who remain firmly in charge.

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