When Latif Pedram, a left-leaning writer who wears casual Western clothes under a silk Afghan cape, recently returned home from France to run for president, he introduced a volatile topic to the country's new experiment with campaigning: marital politics.
Is it fair that Afghan men may divorce their wives on the spot, while Afghan women must obtain their husband's permission for a divorce and risk losing their children if they leave? Is it right for a man to marry four women at once? And can he possibly make all of them happy?
Last week, Pedram suggested at a women's forum that the issue of divorce "ought to be debated" and said that it was "impossible" for a husband to treat four wives equitably.
Pedram's comments, taped and then aired on state television, touched on issues that are culturally taboo in traditional Muslim society and politically explosive in a country just emerging from a decade of violent rule by Islamic militias. Accordingly, they raised a furor among some conservative Islamic scholars in the capital.
The chief justice of the Supreme Court, an elderly religious cleric, sent a letter to the government election commission, as well as to the U.N. political mission here, demanding that Pedram, 41, be expelled from the race. The court's chief clerk, Waheed Mojhda, explained that the justices had "received many calls from people saying a candidate was speaking against Islam.
"There was an urgent meeting, and the justices watched those parts of the tape 15 times. They decided he had questioned the Koran and spoken against [Islamic law], and therefore he should be prosecuted and struck from the list of candidates."
Several official sources said that the court's letter had no legal validity and that the issue might be solved informally. So far, neither the election commission nor the prosecutor's office has taken any formal action against Pedram. As of Monday, he was still one of 17 candidates registered to challenge Hamid Karzai, the interim president, in Afghanistan's first national election, set for Oct. 9.
"What I said was not against religion or Islamic law," Pedram said. "I was just expressing an opinion about women's rights. This is only happening because the fundamentalists want to sabotage my campaign."
Whatever its legal outcome, the contretemps has demonstrated how volatile the issue of women's personal rights remains in Afghanistan, even as women are being officially urged to participate in national politics on an unprecedented scale. More than 4 million have registered to vote in October, and hundreds are expected to run for parliament in the spring.
No prominent Afghan women have come to Pedram's defense. Even liberal professional women expressed shock and disapproval this week at his comments, suggesting he had crossed a line dividing acceptable social debate from religious heresy.
"We do not want to touch such issues. We are all Afghans and Muslims, and we know the sensitivity of it," said Safia Siddiqui, a political activist and member of the professional women's group that sponsored the forum. "These are our Islamic values, and society will accept us only if we respect those values."
Masooda Jalal, a physician and the only woman among the presidential candidates, also declined to discuss the issue of marital rights in Islam or Afghan culture. She preferred, she said, to focus on "practical rights" for Afghan women, such as access to education and health care.
Jalal, 44, who chooses her words carefully and campaigns in a tight head scarf and voluminous coat, has tried to strike a balance between traditional and progressive ideas in her campaign. Her running mate is a turbaned tribal elder from a conservative southern province whose six daughters all have graduate degrees and live abroad.
On Monday, Jalal spoke to a group of destitute widows at a nonprofit bakery, telling them, "Your dignity is my dignity," and promising, if elected, to improve their lot. The women all said they had registered to vote but that their primary concerns were obtaining adequate food and shelter for their children.
"I believe I can do a lot to support women, to bring them into leadership roles and raise their concerns," said Jalal, a mother of three. "The Afghan constitution says men and women are equal before the law, and I intend to implement the constitution." But any discussion of women's rights under Islam, she said firmly, "should be left to scholars."
In Afghan culture, a strictly traditional view is taken of women's marital rights under Islam. Marriages are arranged, and engaged couples do not meet alone. Girls live with their parents until marriage and then immediately go to live with their husband's parents. Men often have two wives and sometimes up to four, as Islam allows in some cases.
Divorce is not common, but it is far easier for a man to obtain one than it is for a woman. Married women face strong pressure from relatives and judges to remain with their husbands -- even an abusive one. If a woman insists on a divorce, courts generally award the children to the husband. In dividing inheritances, male heirs receive double the property female heirs do.
Over the past two decades, moreover, Afghan society has become more conservative, not less. Movements to embrace modernization and communism in the 1970s led to a decade-long occupation of the country by the Soviet Union and eventual civil war among Islamic factions, culminating in the repressive rule of the extremist Taliban movement between 1996 and late 2001.
"We are coming out of mujaheddin and Taliban culture, and conservative tradition has become the norm," said Jawad Luddin, Karzai's chief spokesman. He said the president had tried to be respectful of all views and suggested that Pedram should have been more circumspect. "This has always been a bombshell issue, and a good politician has to suppress himself," he said.
"Women should not be abused, but we should not ignore our traditions either," said Hafiz Mansour, a conservative presidential candidate who spoke at the women's forum. "In the West, women are used to sell lipstick and shampoo. We want them to become educated, to become professionals, but not to be used as a thing and thrown out."
He also said that Islam allowed women more marital rights than critics might think. For example, men may marry several wives but only under limited conditions, such as when one wife is chronically ill or cannot bear a son, and even then only if the husband is able to treat all of them fairly. Islam also allows a woman to sue for divorce if her husband abuses her, fails to support her or forces her to be involved in crime.
"Marriage does not make a woman hostage for life," Mansour said. "What Pedram said is already in the Koran."
While no one is rushing to endorse Pedram's statements, other candidates are scrambling to develop reasonable-sounding policies on women's rights. But, as Jalal points out, Afghan women are just beginning to discover and exercise their political voice -- and they have far more urgent priorities than the right to divorce.
"Women need better health care, better education, better jobs. If a woman has no education, how can she defend her rights?" Jalal said. "The fact that I am a candidate at all is a revolution. If we can get women into office to serve other women, then we can start to bring real change."