Women marching against new legislation which effectively legalises rape met violent opposition from an opposing mob in Kabul yesterday.
Dozens of riot police, backed by more than 50 elite counter-terrorism officers, struggled to keep the groups apart as hordes of men charged at the protesters, who had taken to the streets near Afghanistan's parliament.
At one point the women , who were marching to parliament to deliver a petition, were pelted with stones. Men chanted "long live Islam" and spat at the women who had assembled outside a mosque built by Ayatollah Mohseni, the Shia cleric who helped draft the law. At a separate demonstration, police fired into the air to disperse a mob surrounding a school accused of organising the protests.
The legislation restricts a woman's right to leave her home and demands she submit to her husband's sexual desires. Sima Ghani, one of the women's organisers, said: "This law is against Islam and it's against women. It's against the people of Afghanistan."
Most of those protesting against the law were young Shia women who took to the streets despite the threat of violence. Earlier this week, one of Afghanistan's leading women's rights activists was murdered at her home.
The UN has warned that a number of women have already received death threats for speaking out against the Shia Family Law, which President Hamid Karzai signed last month.
Most of the men were part of a counter-demonstration. Hundreds of them charged at riot police while a cordon of female police officers held hands in a ring around the women, to try to protect them.
"Women have God-given rights," said Ms Ghani. "But these men are claiming those rights in the name of culture. It is against everything God has ever given us."
Both groups chanted "Allah Akbar," or God is great. The men called the women "un-Islamic dogs" in a series of abusive chants. Others screamed "death to America". In reply, the women cried: "Afghanistan is a country of lionesses. We want our rights."
Sayed Sajat, a 22-year-old student who was part of the counter-protest, said: "We must trust Allah, instead of listening to the Western countries and the European countries who come here to meddle and interfere."
In a Shia neighbourhood a few miles away police opened fire to disperse a mob that began ransacking a school. Aziz Royesh, the headmaster at the Marefat School, said local mullahs had accused him of helping to organise the women's protest.
"Around 40 or 50 people came here and surrounded the school," he said. "They said we were unbelievers. I tried to talk to them but they wouldn't listen. They smashed the windows, kicked down the doors and they beat up two of our teachers."
Dozens of riot police were stationed in the neighbourhood last night, amid fears that violence might flare a second time. "The police opened fire and people stoned the school," said one of the local mullahs, Asadullah Yousefi. "We don't know if anyone was injured."
Politicians on both sides claim President Karzai signed the law to win support from hardline Shia clerics, but he has since ordered a Supreme Court review following widespread international protests led by US President Barack Obama. Mr Obama called the law "abhorrent". Some Nato countries have threatened to withdraw troops unless the law is repealed.
The law regulates the personal affairs of the minority Shia community. It stipulates that a man can expect to have sex with his wife at least once every four nights, it negates the need for sexual consent within marriage, and it gives husbands the right to demand their wives wear make-up.
As women marched past the mosque, waving banners demanding equality, a similar number of men poured out of the seminary on to the street waving their fists and running at riot police.
"These women are not Muslims," screamed a man who said he was a mullah. "They are just troublemakers. They do not represent anyone."
Sabrina Saqeb, an MP and one of the protest's organisers, said the demonstration was evidence of a groundswell of support for women's rights.
"Afghan women have raised their voices and they proved this isn't what the international community is imposing on Afghanistan, these are the demands of Afghan women," she said.
"People threw stone at us, some people were hit with sticks, and they called us bad names, but what can you expect? These people are the same as the Taliban. There's no difference."
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