Afghanistan could improve draft consitution on women, religions : US

Afghanistan could make clear improvements to its draft constitution to grant better protection to women and religions other than Islam, senior US officials said.

The draft, unveiled earlier this month, has won wide praise from the United States as a key step on Afghanistan's road to rebirth as a democracy.

"But there are some aspects that we believe could be improved," said John Hanford, US ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

Hanford argued at a hearing of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee that while affirming the right to "perform religious ceremonies," the draft constitution did not fully guarantee full religious freedom.

US officials were also concerned that the draft privileges one version of religious jurisprudence over others, potentially injuring the rights of other Afghan Muslims.

The Afghan draft stated that in issues not addressed by the constitution or laws, Afghan judges should follow the Hanafi school of jurisprudence.

"Such instances would violate the religious freedom of Afghan Sunnis who do not adhere to the Hanafi school, or of Afghan Shi'a involved in a dispute with Afghan Sunnis," Hanford said.

Hanford's colleague, Lorne Craner, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told the committee that improvements could also be made to the constitution in terms of protection for women, who were persecuted by the country's former Taliban rulers.

"Though the draft makes wide provisions for the equal rights of all citizens before the law, the draft does not include a delineation of who is a citizen, and does not state that both men and women are citizens," Craner said in prepared testimony.

"Many groups concerned with the rights of women also suggest that more specifics need to be mentioned, such as outlawing discrimination against women, forced and underage marriages, full rights of marriage, divorce and inheritance for women."

Craner did however note that the draft offered women a guarantee of significant representation in the legislature.

Under the Taliban, women and girls were denied education and effectively barred from the workplace and public life, while forced to wear the shroud-like all-enveloping burqa when appearing in public.

Despite their criticisms, both Hanford and Craner stressed that it was up to Afghans to frame their own constitution.

A loya jirga (grand assembly) of 500 delegates will meet beginning December 10 in Afghanistan to debate the draft constitution released earlier this month, paving the way for a presidential election scheduled for June 2004.