OTTAWA – Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada defended the progress made by women in his country after he received a diplomatic dressing-down over a controversial new law.
Omar Samad was called in by the Canadian government amid an international furore over legislation that would make it illegal for Shia women to deny sex to their husbands.
He said the Afghan government is examining the law and will have no comment about it for now.
In the meantime, he asked for patience from his country’s Western critics.
“I fully understand the reaction – the immediate, emotional reaction of countries like Canada who have done so much to build a young democracy,” Samad said in an interview.
“People also need to understand that this young democracy is immature. It is not at the same standard as a Canadian or European democracy. And it’s in a very different cultural context as well. We are going to fall down, we are going to make mistakes, and we’re going to move forward as a result.”
He said the condition of women in his country – where they hold 89 of parliament’s 351 seats – cannot be compared to the dark days under the Taliban.
Samad made the remarks after a host of Canadian politicians made it clear that this country has not lost soldiers’ lives and spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan to see women’s rights slide backward.
Critics worry the legislation undermines hard-won rights for women enacted after the fall of the Taliban’s strict Islamist regime.
The law – which some lawmakers say was never debated in parliament – is intended to regulate family life inside Afghanistan’s Shiite community, which makes up about 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s 30 million people.
The law does not affect Afghan Sunnis.
One of the most controversial articles of the law stipulates that the wife “is bound to preen for her husband as and when he desires.”
“As long as the husband is not travelling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night,” Article 132 of the law says.
“Unless the wife is ill or has any kind of illness that intercourse could aggravate, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband.”
One provision also appears aimed at protecting the woman’s right to sex inside marriage, saying that the “man should not avoid having sexual relations with his wife longer than once every four months.”
A spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said officials called in Samad on Wednesday to discuss the matter.
“We have informed the Afghan government of the damaging effect that the law could have and we pointed out that across the country, Canadians are following the issue closely,” said a Foreign Affairs news release.
“We understand that the Afghan government intends to continue to review the law and discuss it with civil society. We are monitoring closely developments and will continue to make our principled position known.”
Spokeswoman Catherine Loubier said Cannon discussed the issue with Afghanistan’s foreign affairs and interior ministers in The Hague this week at an international meeting on the country’s future.
Canadian diplomats have also met officials in President Hamid Karzai’s office in Kabul and are seeking clarification on possible implementation of the law.
The proposed law has sparked outrage in Canada and abroad.
It would also restrict other rights of Afghanistan’s minority Shia women, making it illegal for them to leave the house without permission or to have child custody.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and politicians of all stripes have urged the Afghan government to honour its commitments to human rights, including respect for the equality of women.
Canada has lost 116 soldiers and spent up to $10 billion to support the Karzai government.
The father of one slain soldier called the law an insult.
“My son gave his life up for all these causes and to have President Karzai’s government bring in a law like that, that’s insulting,” Jim Davis said Wednesday.
His son, Cpl. Paul Davis, was killed in Afghanistan in 2006.
The proposed Shia family law has cast a shadow over the international conference in The Hague.
Critics say Karzai approved the law in advance of his country’s elections in the hope of winning critical swing votes from conservative Shia men.
But the law remains shrouded in mystery: it has not been published, Karzai’s office has refused to comment on it, and its alleged details have only been made public by the Afghan parliamentarians who opposed it.