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Afghan president backs strict guidelines for women

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s president on Tuesday endorsed a “code of conduct” issued by an influential council of clerics that activists say represents a giant step backward for women’s rights in the country.

President Hamid Karzai’s Tuesday remarks 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.

Both the U.S. and Karzai hope that the Taliban can be brought into negotiations to end the country’s decade-long war. But activists say they’re worried that gains made by women since 2001 may be lost in the process.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan prior to the 2001 U.S. 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 women should not mingle with strange men in places like schools, markets or offices. 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 that were 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, who could be valuable intermediaries in speaking to the insurgents.

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

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