KABUL — President Hamid Karzai's US-backed government is under fire this International Women's Day, accused of selling out on Afghan women's rights as it tries to woo the Taliban into peace talks.
Lawmakers, rights organisations and analysts say that the Afghan leader, by endorsing an edict calling women second-class citizens, has endangered hard-won progress in women's rights since the Taliban fell from power in 2001.
The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization denounced authorities for trying to strike a balance between receiving foreign aid and "keeping the conservative forces of Afghan society happy".
"In practice, the demands of extremist elements residing in the presidential palace, particularly those in the judicial bodies as well as the Afghan Ulema Council, always outweigh those of the international community," it said.
Last Friday, the Council, Afghanistan's highest Islamic authority, issued a non-binding edict saying that women were worth less than men -- a statement released by Karzai's office and then endorsed by the president on Tuesday.
"Men are fundamental and women are secondary," it said, adding women should avoid "mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in bazaars, in offices and other aspects of life".
Such advice effectively implies that women should not go to university or to work at all, no matter that in the lower house of parliament, for example, 27 percent of seats are reserved for women.
The edict went on to say that women would wear "full Islamic hijab", should respect polygamy -- Islam allows a man to take up to four wives -- and comply with Sharia law on divorce, which severely restricts women's rights.
It further stated that "teasing, harassing and beating women" was prohibited "without a sharia-compliant reason" -- leaving open the suggestion that in some circumstances, domestic abuse is appropriate.
Karzai, who has formally outlawed violence and discrimination against women, caused consternation on Tuesday by publicly endorsing the statement, saying that it "reiterated Islamic principles and values" in supporting women.
In response, Afghanistan's first deputy speaker, Fawzia Koofi, who was this week listed as one of the world's "150 Fearless Women" by US website The Daily Beast, accused the Council of returning women to the dark days of Taliban rule.
"This move by the Ulema council drives Afghan women rights towards Talibanization," she told AFP. "Nobody has the right to interfere in women's rights, not even President Hamid Karzai."
Many women are increasingly concerned that Karzai's desire to end the Taliban insurgency through peace talks means that their hard-won rights will be compromised in order to bring the hardline Islamists into mainstream politics.
"It could be a message to the Taliban that he could make compromises amending the constitution," Afghan political analyst Haroun Mir told AFP.
In Kabul and major cities in Afghanistan, enormous progress has been made in women's rights since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down the Taliban regime, which banned girls from going to school and women from working.
Women were whipped in the street by the religious police if they wore anything other than the all-enveloping blue or white burqa, and those accused of adultery were executed at a sports stadium after Friday prayers.
Since the Taliban fell, however, the number of girls in education has soared from 5,000 to 2.5 million, according to the government and aid groups.
But in remote areas where the traditional patriarchal system is very much the norm, life for most women has barely improved at all.
The case of a woman named Gulnaz, who does not know her real age but says she is 20 or 21, attracted worldwide attention when she was jailed for adultery after being raped by her cousin's husband.
Karzai pardoned her, and she was released in December after spending two years behind bars, but faces great social pressure to marry the man who attacked her, to provide security for her baby and restore her family's honour.
In January, the president described violence against women as "cowardly" and pledged to take action against the perpetrators in the wake of a horrific case of the torture of a child bride, locked in a toilet for six months.
Heather Barr, researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, said at best Karzai was giving out mixed messages on women's rights.
"This thing from the Ulema council is really, really frightening... because it is about all women, rather than individual cases," Barr told AFP.
Despite Karzai signing legislation to eliminate violence and discrimination against women, implementation is poor to non-existent.
According to aid group Oxfam, 87 percent of Afghan women say they have suffered from physical, sexual or psychological abuse or been forced into an arranged marriage.