Iraq: Iraqi women may lose basic rights under new constitution

Inter Press Service
The irony is not lost either amongst women's groups in Baghdad or activists in the United States.
Iraqi women who enjoyed basic human rights under one of the world's most repressive regimes headed by former President Saddam Hussein are now on the verge of losing their hard-won freedoms under a U.S.-blessed administration in the insurgent-ravaged country.
"We express our deepest concern and worry about the drafts lately released by the (Iraqi) Constitutional Committee, specifically relating to the chapter on duties and rights, in which the (Islamic) sharia law was clearly stated as the main source of legislation in the new Iraqi constitution," the Iraqi Women's Movement said in an appeal to the United Nations.

According to this draft, the new Iraqi transitional government acknowledges the equal rights of men and women in all fields -- "as long as it doesn't contradict with sharia law."

If implemented, the proposed new laws will restrict women's rights, specifically in matters relating to marriage, divorce and family inheritance. A marriage enjoined by a woman's free will is likely to be made more difficult, and divorces by men relatively easier.

Several key rights that were included in the interim Iraqi constitution are also at risk of being taken out of the new constitution by the drafting committee.

Appealing to the United Nations, parliamentarians and to international women's organizations, the Iraqi Women's Movement says: "We want the constitution to recognize women's human rights as mother, worker and citizen, and also prevent all kinds of violence and discrimination against women."

The Movement is also asking for a quota of not less than 40 percent for women in all decision-making positions. Additionally, it wants the government to recognize international conventions the country has signed and ratified.

Jessica Neuwirth, president of the U.S.-based women's advocacy group Equality Now, told IPS: "We believe that the constitution of Iraq should be compatible with fundamental human rights and with Iraq's obligations under international law."

She pointed out that Iraq is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which sets forth the obligation to embody the principle of equality of men and women in their national constitutions.

"Women in Iraq, who have been disproportionately excluded from representation on the panel drafting the constitution, support and are publicly protesting for this right to equality," she said.

"We would hope that the international community as a whole would support the call of these women for inclusion of this basic human right in the Iraqi constitution and respect for all international human rights standards," Neuwirth added.

"The women of Iraq are counting on the international community for help," says Basma AlKhateeb, the Amman-based Iraq program coordinator for the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

"Yes, the threat is big, and many political compromises are expected to take place between the different influential political groups in the Iraqi National Assembly," AlKhateeb told IPS.

She said the political maneuvering will continue until the last minute, before a final draft is approved by Aug. 15, which in turn will have to be ratified in a constitutional referendum by Oct. 15.

AlKhateeb also said that Iraqi women feel that since there is very little time left, there should be urgent international pressure on Iraqis responsible for drafting the constitution.

She said that Iraqi women have started to mobilize against the current documents and are lobbying Iraqi political leaders and government officials. But they are also appealing to donors and the international community to make sure that the new constitution will ensure the basic human rights of women.

Hanaa Edwar of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, which organized a demonstration and a "sit-in" in Baghdad last week, says that despite the deteriorating security situation, "brave women from different governorates have taken the initiative to raise their voices demanding equal rights for women."

She said her organization was not only protesting against the attempt to marginalize the role of women but also to complain about depriving civil society organizations a role in drafting the constitution.

Edwar said their three-hour protest last week "has inspired us to widen our campaign in involve both men and women, in supporting our just demands."

Expressing her sympathies with Iraqi women fighting for their rights, Charlotte Bunch of the U.S.-based Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL) described the issue as "complicated."

Firstly, she said, "I do think that the United States should not be in Iraq and should leave as quickly as possible." But since it still has a military presence in that country, "it has a lot of responsibility for the situation there."

"Therefore, I think that the United States should be held accountable for its disregard of the impact on women's rights of the (military) occupation -- something many people said in advance when the Bush administration tried to claim the war would benefit women, and many pointed out that Iraq had some of the best laws and policies regarding women's rights already," Bunch told IPS.

"So yes, I think that the U.S. government should respond to the call from women's groups in Iraq and work to ensure that equality is guaranteed in the constitution and that more women are involved in this process," she added.

"After all, the United States had much to do with picking people to be involved in reconstruction and has done little to bring women's rights advocates into the process. It can and should still do so now," Bunch said.

By by Thalif Deen and originally published on 23 July 2005.
Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service