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The Globe and Mail

Gender apartheid cannot be justified in the name of religion

Afghan President Hamid Karzai looks on during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, March 6, 2012.

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

Canada, and its NATO allies, must speak out against Afghan President Hamid Karzai's attempt to appease the Taliban by taking away the rights of women. Ottawa should reconsider its support of the Karzai government in light of his apparent willingness to ignore his country's own laws.

Mr. Karzai has publicly supported an edict from the Ulema Council, composed of 150 Muslim clerics, that classifies men as fundamental and women as "secondary." The council's code bans women from travelling without a male guardian, prohibits women from mingling with men in offices, schools and markets, and allows men to beat their wives in certain circumstances. The clerics, who call the code "voluntary," believe it is in line with a literalist interpretation of Islamic law.

But gender apartheid cannot be justified in the name of Islam. A state where men have one set of rights and women another is not only morally repugnant but contradicts the country's own 2004 constitution, which re-established equality between men and women. If Afghan's female parliamentarians cannot work with their male counterparts, then Parliament cannot function.

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With international forces set to withdraw by 2014, Mr. Karzai is under increasing pressure to appease the Taliban. He must resist the temptation to sacrifice women in order to bring the insurgents and other hard-line conservatives to the negotiating table. "While the code is not legally binding, it comes at a critical time for Afghan women. Many are already concerned about the future, especially if peace talks with the Taliban move ahead," said Robert Fox, Oxfam's executive director.

Part of the justification for the 2001 military overthrow of the Taliban was the regime's shocking treatment of women and girls; girls were prohibited from going to school and women forced to cover themselves in head-to-toe burkas. Some of the 158 Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2002 no doubt felt they were fighting more than just the insurgents; they were fighting for justice.

Canada has also spent millions of dollars in international aid to strengthen the country's institutions, with an emphasis on improving the lives of women and children. Today, 2.7 million girls are enrolled in school, and 30 per cent of the country's teachers are women. A record number of female candidates ran in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

It would be wrong to reverse a decade of progress. A peace process that excludes women is not sustainable. Afghanistan's leader must stand up for all members of society. If he cannot defend justice, it is right to ask whether his government is worth defending.

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