By Miram Arghandiwal
KABUL (Reuters) - A group of Afghan female lawmakers and activists are eyeing an unlikely alliance with the country's religious leaders, hoping to promote and enhance women's rights through Islam in a joint campaign.
Though Afghan women have made hard-fought gains in education and work since the collapse of the austere Taliban regime in 2001, fears are growing these could suffer a reversal when most foreign forces leave by the end of next year.
In the deeply conservative, male-dominated country where religion often holds more sway than legal authority, religious leaders have often been a major barrier to women obtaining the rights granted to them under the constitution.
"The role of the mullahs is crucial because we're an Islamic nation and the mosques are being used against women. Why not use them for women?" said member of parliament Fawzia Koofi, an outspoken campaigner for women's rights.
Koofi, from the largely rural Badakhshan province, is in talks with the country's male, religious elite to promote pro-female sermons during important Friday prayers in mosques where the government pays clerics' salaries.
The hope is that the sermons will help address the problem of violence against women in a country where many men are suspicious of women's rights and see them as imported from the West.
The campaign will start in Kabul and then be implemented in the provinces but only in 3,500 government-funded mosques. There are 160,000 mosques in the country of 30 million people.
Winning the support of religious leaders for the campaign may seem like a long shot.
In April, conservative lawmakers managed to indefinitely delay debate in turning a decree banning violence against women into law, citing it as un-Islamic.
Efforts to strengthen the elimination of violence against women law were spearheaded by Koofi.
With the deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops looming, some women feel they are left with no choice but to try to gain the support of the men who have traditionally been their fiercest opposition.
"They've defamed us. I can't go into a province and try to fight for women rights if the local mullah is against me," said rights activist Wazhma Frogh, director and founder of Afghanistan's Women Peace and Security Research Institute.
"This is the only solution," she said.
Also under consideration is a plan for textbooks for clerics that teach them women's rights within the context of Islam.
Abdul Haq Abid, deputy minister for hajj and religious affairs, has been in talks with Koofi for nine months over the campaign to use religion to enhance women's rights.
"Women have sacred rights granted to them in Islam, so Imams need to preach this to people in underdeveloped provinces, so they become aware," Abid told Reuters.
(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Rob Taylor and Robert Birsel)