UK: Memo to the Bar Human Rights Committee

Act Together
We, the Iraqi Women’s Network in Iraq and Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq, are grateful to you for organising tonight's meeting for Sundus Abass, Director of the 'Women in Leadership Institute' in Baghdad.
This organisation, along with 37 other women’s organisations in Iraq, has been campaigning, in increasingly dangerous environments, to have repealed the intensely discriminatory Article 41 in the new Iraqi Constitution.
Women in Iraq, as I know you are well aware, now face the threat of having all the rights they have enjoyed since 1959 taken away from them. The 1959 Personal Status Code (Family Law) was based on a progressive reading of Islamic Law. It codified all the existing laws relating to marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance etc, but uniquely it combined Sunni and Shi’a regulations and applied to all Iraqis, whether Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis, or Shi’i, thus giving a sense of unity to the Iraqi population as a whole. Amendments to this Code were made by the Ba’ath regime in 1978, widening the conditions under which a woman could seek a divorce, outlawing forced marriages, and requiring a judge’s permission for a man to marry a second wife. It also prescribed punishments for marriages contracted without legal authorisation.

From the 1950s, Iraqi women have been foremost in the region to enjoy equality and thus have been able access education and training and to enter many professions – law, medicine, engineering, academia – on an equal basis with men. Iraq was a secular society, and despite government repression largely without sectarian violence: Shi’i, Sunni and Kurds intermarried, lived and worked side by side.

Article 41, if retained in the Constitution, will change totally and irrevocably the lives of Iraqi women. The old Personal Status Family Code, which applied to everyone, will be replaced by family laws pertaining to specific religious and ethnic communities. Authority will reside in conservative religious leaders who can interpret the Shari’a according to their own beliefs. In some communities, the marriage of girls as young as 9 will be sanctioned; women may be forced into marriages, or remarried against their will, if widowed, to a dead husband’s male relative. Inheritance, custody of children, and divorce rights will be denied to women. The judiciary will not be independent, and women will be unprotected by any legal safeguards.

However, Article 41 does not merely erode the rights of women and deny them the rights they are entitled to under International Law (Iraq ratified the CEDAW, albeit with reservations). It will also fuel and increase sectarianism and ethnic cleansing inside the country. It will make new mixed marriages virtually impossible, will threaten existing ones, and will leave in extreme vulnerability those citizens of Iraq who belong to no religious group at all. It will further a sense of communalism as opposed to unified citizenship and condemn Iraq to continual sectarian violence, and chronic civil war.

What can be done? In addition to opposition to Article 41, there are other issues such as federalism and the status of Kirkuk that had to be resolved. It was agreed last year before the referendum on the constitution that there would be a three-month window of opportunity for a constitutional committee to amend the proposed new clauses once the new government was formed. However, so far no constitutional draft committee has even been established. The current security situation makes it impossible for any consultations, meetings, campaigns and debates to take place. And there is also the issue of the status of International Conventions, Treaties, and Laws in relation to Shari’a law. Which takes precedence?

Women’s groups throughout Iraq, even in the north, are being harassed if they attempt to mobilise and lobby for their rights in the constitution. In the south and other parts women are forced now to wear the hijab (headscarf) and adopt conservative dress. Millions of women and girls dare not leave their homes to go to school, to university, to work, or simply to go to market and support their families.

Women and women’s rights are being instrumentalized by the US and UK government who promised liberation but have not actually supported women’s rights. Women have also been instrumentalized by the new Islamist political parties who use women symbolically to break with the previous largely secular regime. And finally women are being used by the insurgents to express their resistance to western cultural impositions and occupation: they harass and threaten women verbally and physically, and even kill those who are involved in the struggle for women’s rights.

The increasing sectarian violence, fuelled by – and to some extent tolerated by the occupation forces – means many women identify with their communal/ethnic/religious group for protection from the 'men', rather than risk their lives by joining forces with 'women'.

We, the Iraqi women’s groups in the UK, are working closely with our sister groups in Iraq, and ask the UK government to use all means, diplomatic and political, as well as financial (aid), to persuade the Iraqi government to:
  1. Extend the period for determining constitutional amendments from three months to one year.
  2. Delete Article 41 in its entirety from the Constitution.
  3. Insert as Article 1 that 'International Conventions, ratified by Iraq, take precedence over all interpretations of domestic law'.
We all know that unless International Laws are enshrined in the Constitution, there is no hope for democracy, peace, and respect for human rights, let alone the rights of women.

There is a cruel irony in the fact that the US, aided by the UK, told the world it was bringing 'democracy and liberation' to the people of Iraq, when what they have brought in is chaos, violence, and the social death of millions of women (and women now far outnumber men in the population, due to the series of wars and repression by the previous regime). Will the UK government now distance itself from the US ( which is one of only two countries never to have signed up to the CEDAW) and speak up for the human rights of over half the population?

Also, we would beg you to remind the UK Government of its responsibilities under Security Council Resolution 1325, which requires all actors engaged in conflict resolution, management and prevention to consider the impact of conflict upon women and ensure that women are engaged in peace processes and that the new constitutions and laws accommodate the principles enshrined in international conventions and laws.

To comply fully with 1325 (and I understand that the UK government has recently published its own Action Plan as a follow-up to the UN Action Plan on Implementation of 1325), we hope that the UK government will persuade the new Iraqi government to ensure that the constitutional drafting committee contains at least 25 per cent of women in its membership.

Sundus Abass
Director, Women in Leadership Institute (Baghdad, Iraq)

Nadje Al-Ali
Act Together: Women’s Action for Iraq (UK)

London, 25 July 2006