Article 22 of the draft says the "citizens of Afghanistan have equal rights and duties before the law", but does not explicitly state that women have the same rights.

That article should be changed to "Afghan men and women have equal rights and duties before the law", Nadira, a female delegate from the northern Balkh province, said on Thursday.

"We want the explicit mention of 'women and men' in every article where the words 'Afghan citizens' are used," said fellow delegate Noorya Wisal from southeastern Ghazni.

Under the Taliban regime, women and girls were denied education and barred from public life.

"We want the explicit mention of 'women and men' in every article where the words 'Afghan citizens' are used"

Noorya Wisal
Loya Jirga delegate

Some 100 women are among the 502 delegates taking part in the historic loya jirga (grand assembly) in Kabul to debate and ratify the draft constitution which will pave the way for the country's transition to democracy at elections scheduled for June 2004.

Mujahidin outraged

The convention plunged into crisis on Wednesday when Malalai Joya, a woman delegate from the western Farah province, criticised the powerful mujahidin (former anti-Soviet fighters)  calling for them to be tried for plunging the country into years of civil war.

Several angry mujahidin delegates rushed towards the stage demanding Joya be expelled and soldiers had to intervene to maintain order.

Other women delegates at the meeting later mounted a protest and prevented Joya from being expelled.

"She should have observed the sensitivity of the session and not used strong offensive language but still we supported her and didn't permit her expulsion," said Wisal.

The outburst shows the level of distrust and sharp differences that have emerged since the meeting was opened on Sunday by former king Muhammad Zahir Shah.

Deep divisions

Delegates are divided between those who support the strong presidential system laid down in the draft and those, including some mujahidin factions, who would prefer some form of prime minister or at least a parliament with real power.

"They will have to work very hard to reach consensus," said UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva.

"You are coming from so many years of violence, so many years of destruction where your institutions were eroded, it is quite a challenge to try to overcome all this so quickly by defining your constitution," de Almeida e Silva said.

He was nevertheless optimistic that the loya jirga would agree a constitution "that responds to the aspirations of the majority of the people".