Iraq: Fight for the rights of Iraqi women

Tikkun Magazine
The new Constitution threatens to restore "Islamic Law" and with it a dismantling of the rights of Iraqi women.
The future of Iraq now lies in the hands of the Iraqi National Assembly after the writing committee of the Iraqi constitution submitted its draft in August 2006. The document will serve as the foundation of the future Iraq.
There are still some outstanding differences to be resolved between the parties, and committee members expressed hope that these would be resolved through amendments agreed in the National Assembly in the next few days.

Heavy is the weight on the shoulders of the women in the National Assembly, who make up 31 percent of its representatives (86 out 275 members) and who must fight for the rights of all Iraqi women, who make up 60 percent of the population. In the critical days before the assembly presents the draft constitution to the Iraqi public to be voted on in a referendum on October 15, these women must wrestle with the ayatollahs in order to guarantee rights that have long been enshrined in secular laws of the past.

For example, in 1970, the new provisional constitution formally made women equal to men before the law, giving them the right to vote, run in politics, attend school and own property. Specifically, Article 19 declared that all citizens were equal before the law regardless of sex, blood, language, social origin or religion. Despite severe political oppression under Saddam Hussein, women enjoyed many rights in education, employment and with regards to inheritance and family laws. Iraqi women were considered to be among the most liberated in the Middle East. But now these rights are being threatened by what appears to be a religious-political government forming in Iraq.

According to the draft constitution, Iraq is considered an Islamic state and no law can contradict the principles of Islam. The Islamic clauses of the constitution would not be applicable in the Kurdish north. Provisions of the constitution were leaked last month, revealing the extent to which Islam may influence future laws. Many women's groups worried about a phrase that said that followers of any religion or sect were free to choose their civil status according to their religious or sectarian beliefs. Others complained about a chapter that stated that men and women were given equal rights as long as this did not contradict Islamic law.

Islamic law gives protection to women, but secular governments and laws, time and again, have proven better in protecting women's liberties. Recent history has shown that Islamic states have thrived best when religious institutions were separated from the state administration, as was the case during the Ottoman and Mogul empires.

In contemporary societies, attempts at establishing Islamic states have proven disastrous for women. Government interpretations of Islamic laws have too often discriminated against women. In many countries purporting to draw legitimacy from Islamic law, such as Iran, Morocco and Malaysia, women have struggled for years to ease hard-lined interpretations of certain religious edicts. Meanwhile, in countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Nigeria, women continue to suffer from cruel implementation of religious and traditional laws.

While Iraqis have the right to choose Islam as their source of legislation and inspiration, there must be defensive clauses inserted into the constitution that protect all Iraqis, especially women, from harsh and often harmful applications of Islamic law. Supporters of the draft constitution point to a separate bill of rights, saying it will protect women, and point to constitutional clauses saying no law can contradict democracy or the bill of rights.

Yet will these be enough? Indeed, will women in the National Assembly be able to defend the requirement of maintaining a 25 percent female quota in all three branches of government? Only time will tell.

Women are worried. As negotiations took place over the constitution, Iraqi women took to the streets to defend their rights, carrying banners and chanting slogans of freedom. Sharouk al-Ababji of the Iraqi Women's Network recently told the Al-Iraqiyya television station that the motivation behind the group's demonstrations was that, "We want a civil law. We want to strengthen women's rights in the constitution. We want women to be active members of the political process and in the reconstruction of Iraq."

The women of Iraq are counting on their sisters in the National Assembly to ensure that women's issues not become fodder to be traded for political gain by the assembly's male majority. All eyes will be on what comes out of the assembly chambers in the days to come. Let us hope that the voices of the courageous women who marched in Baghdad with almost no security will be heard. Let us hope that their rights will be guaranteed once and for all.

By Souheila Al-Jadda

Souheila al-Jadda is a freelance journalist and associate producer of a Peabody award winning news program, "Mosaic: World News from the Middle East," on Link TV.

Copyright © 2006 Tikkun Magazine