THE Afghanistan government appears to be scaling back its support for women's rights to advance peace talks with the Taliban ahead of the withdrawal of foreign troops, Afghan lawmakers and human-rights activists have warned.
A government-appointed council of 150 leading Muslim clerics last week urged the strict application of a conservative and literalist interpretation of Islamic law regarding women.
The council said Afghan law should require women to wear the veil and forbid them from mixing with men in the work place or traveling without a male chaperone.
"Men are fundamental and women are secondary," the Ulama Council said in a statement on Friday, according to a translation by the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
President Hamid Karzai published the statement on his website, fueling speculation that he backed the conservative clerics' position.
The Ulama Council's recommendations also included a number of other declarations that seemed to support Karzai's political positions, including backing peace talks with the Taliban and urging the handover of US-controlled prisons to Afghan government supervision.
"This is a political statement; this is not an Islamic statement," said Shukria Barakzai, a female lawmaker from the capital, Kabul.
The council's positions are relatively standard orthodox interpretations of Islamic law, similar to those that would be issued by mainstream Muslim clerics throughout the Islamic world.
But such positions would mark a significant step backwards for women in Afghanistan were they to be enshrined in Afghan law.
They also come at a particularly jittery moment in Afghanistan.
The US and its allies are set to pull most of their troops from the country by 2014.
The US and Mr Karzai both say they are intent on pushing forward with peace talks with the Taliban - a movement that has a long history of oppressing women - although US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged that the peace outreach won't mean backsliding on advances in women's rights.
Women's rights advocates fear that any compromise with the Taliban as part of a peace deal could undercut gains they have made in the past decade, including the right to vote, hold public office and get an education.
"The future of women's rights in Afghanistan is more unpredictable that at any stage over the last 10 years," the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization concluded in a report published on Tuesday.
"Most of women's important achievements over the last decade are likely to be reversed."
Mr Karzai told a news conference that he supported the Ulama Council's statements, but said such recommendations would actually strengthen the status of women's rights in Afghanistan.
"They declared the values of Islam and the principles for how to strengthen the position of women in accordance with Sharia," he said.