Rights groups are becoming increasingly concerned that the Afghan government is willing to surrender women's rights to advance peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The latest indication that women's rights could be eroding came when the 150-member Council of Religious Scholars recently issued a "code of conduct" for women that, among other things, calls for segregation of the sexes in the workplace and in education and prohibits women from traveling unless accompanied by a close male relative.
President Hamid Karzai appeared to back the scholars' recommendations, stressing their knowledge of religious matters and claiming that the code was not discriminatory.
Latifa Sultani, coordinator of the women's rights section at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the proposals, which include allowing men to beat their wives under certain circumstances, were troubling.
"We are concerned about the increasing growth of fundamentalist thought," she said. "Women already face various restrictions on a daily basis." The Council of Religious Scholars is backing government-led peace negotiations with insurgent groups, and some observers conclude that its new public stance on women's rights is part of a policy of appeasement.
"In view of the current political situation, I believe this declaration is of political rather than practical intent," political analyst Mahmoud Saiqal said, arguing that the government wanted to "show the Taliban that their demand for Islamic precepts to be implemented is acceptable, and that they should trust it and continue with the negotiations."
Wida Ahmad, head of the Afghanistan Social Adjudicators' Association, also suspects the clerics of attempting to engage with the Taliban in pursuit of reconciliation. But she said their proposals would never become reality.
"Over the past 10 years, Afghan women have achieved political maturity and they aren't going to accept this kind of pressure," she said. "There are still some people in government who have Taliban-like ideas, and they are against all kinds of female participation in various areas of public life, but their efforts will be futile."
Shahla Farid, a lecturer in law at Kabul University, noted that the ideas set out by the clerics ran counter to the Afghan constitution, which proclaims equal rights for men and women.
"Why doesn't the Council of Religious Scholars issue declarations and regulations when Afghan women are sexually abused, forced into marriage, and have their civil and Islamic rights violated?" she said. "The council is always trying to harass women. It has never done anything to ensure the rights of women in society." And some women wondered why the role of women in Afghan society seems to occupy so much of the clerics' time.
"Are the killings of innocent people, mutilations, violence, bribery, theft of state and private land, drug-smuggling and other crimes in accordance with the provisions of Quran," asked Yalda, a Kabul resident. "If not, why doesn't the Council of Religious Scholars issue a declaration on those issues? Why does it focus only on women?"