Afghan Cleric Defends Law Legalizing Rape in Marriage

A key backer of an Afghan law that critics say legalizes marital rape and rolls back women's rights rejected an international outcry as foreign meddling on Saturday and insisted the law offers women many protections.

The law, passed last month, says a husband can demand sex with his wife every four days unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse, and regulates when and for what reasons a wife may leave her home alone.

"It is essential for the woman to submit to the man's sexual desire," the law says.

The legislation has raised the specter of the deposed hard-line Taliban regime, which fell in 2001 after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban required women to wear all-covering burqas and banned them from leaving home without a male relative.

Following an international uproar over the new law, which President Barack Obama called "abhorrent," Afghan President Hamid Karzai put it under review. The move puts enforcement on hold.

Mohammad Asif Mohseni, a top Afghan cleric and one of the law's main drafters, said the legislation cannot be revoked or changed because it was enacted through a legislative process — passed by both houses of parliament and signed by Karzai.

"The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights," Mohseni told reporters in the capital, Kabul.

Surrounded by supporters, Mohseni unfurled reams of paper with hundreds of women's signatures and thumbprints backing the law. The legislation came out of three years of debate and revision involving both Islamic scholars and members of parliament, Mohseni said.

Afghanistan is an Islamic state and its constitution defers to the Quran as the ultimate authority. Mohseni said the law simply reiterates rules from Islam's holy book.

"In Shariah law, it states that a woman cannot go out without the permission of her husband," he said. He argued that the law is permissive because it allows a woman to go out for a medical emergency or other urgent reason without asking.

Mohseni said much of the uproar has come from people misinterpreting the law. He said a woman can refuse sex with her husband for many reasons beyond illness, including fasting for Ramadan, preparing for a pilgrimage, menstruating, or recovering from giving birth.

Mohseni also argued that the law can be interpreted to mean simply sleeping in the same room as a couple every four nights, but an Associated Press translation of the pertinent article suggests this reading is unlikely.

The law says that every fourth day a man "can pass the night with his wife, unless it is harmful for either side, or either of them is suffering from any kind of sexual disease."

"If she is not sick, and if she does not have another problem, it is the right of a man to ask for sex and she should make herself ready for it," Mohseni explained.

Though the law only applies to the country's Shiite population — 10 percent to 20 percent of Afghanistan's 30 million people — Mohseni, the country's top Shiite cleric, said most of the articles could also be applied to Sunnis. A prominent Sunni cleric, Mawlawi Habibullah Ahsam, said the rules about women submitting to sex and leaving the home would also be acceptable to Sunnis.

Earlier this week, dozens of Afghan lawmakers and officials condemned the legislation, saying it encourages re-Talibanization.

Much has improved for women since the fall of the Taliban. Millions of girls now attend school, and many women own businesses. Of 351 parliamentarians, 89 are women. But in the conservative country, critics fear those gains could easily be reversed.

Mohseni argued that women and men are very far from equal in today's Afghanistan and should not be treated as such. He said many rural women are illiterate and would not be able to find work. Men are typically expected to provide for their wives and children.

"For all these expenses, can't we at least give the right to a husband to demand sex from his wife after four nights?" he said.