Under the clerics' thumbs

Women's rights groups in the Middle East fear that Iraqi women will be the biggest losers in the country's new constitution.

Published August 13, 2005 8:19PM (EDT)

War-ravaged Iraq will release a final draft of its constitution on Monday. Six months in the making, the document is supposed to serve as a blueprint of democracy and equal rights for all citizens. But the religious and ethnic power grab that, in the wake of Saddam, has fractured the country into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish mini-states, does not bode well for women. Since the fall of the Baath regime to the Americans, practitioners of political Islam in both the Shiite and Sunni communities have risen to power, with Iran looming large in the background. Should their fundamentalist tenets dominate the constitution, say women's rights activists in Iraq and the Middle East, individual rights for women may be nowhere in sight in the new Iraq.

Women, who make up 60 percent of Iraqi society, are underrepresented in the burgeoning government. During Iraq's election in January 2005, 275 representatives were voted into a new National Assembly, 33 percent of whom were women. The 55-member Constitutional Committee, primary architects of the new constitution, is only 17 percent women. This June, Women for Women International, a nonprofit program that helps women rebuild their lives after war, held a conference in Jordan that featured 12 men and women from the Iraqi National Assembly and Constitutional Drafting Committee, and nearly 70 members of Iraqi civil society. A conference report concluded that in drafting the constitution, "women's groups have not felt sufficiently included in the process."

It's therefore no surprise that, according to several women's rights groups, current drafts of the constitution lack significant protections and rights for women that would be considered basic in any modern society. Most ominously, says Azam Kamguian, coordinator of the Committee to Defend Women's Rights in the Middle East, Sharia, or strict Islamic law, threatens to overshadow the constitution. "Ever since 1990s, when Saddam Hussein brought Islamic elements into the legal system, education and the personal status code, and allowed polygamy, women still had basic rights," she says by e-mail. "Now in the aftermath of the occupation of Iraq, with the rise of Islamic currents, the issue of subordinating women's rights to the Islamic Sharia law seems to be a matter of extent."

While Islamists are calling for Sharia to be the main source of the constitution, less extreme groups are pushing for Islam to be only a "source" of legislation. But to Kamguian, this is "something like Afghanistan's constitution after Taliban. For women it would be an option between bad and worse. It is a catastrophe."

Yanar Mohammed, a secular Iraqi activist, speaking on the phone from Baghdad, says that what is not open for debate is that Islam will be mentioned in the first paragraph of the constitution. Based on recent drafts of the constitution that she has seen, Mohammed says that four of nine members of Iraq's Supreme Court will be Islamic clerics. "Iraq will have an Islamic Shura [council] deciding its most important legal issues," she says.

Iraq's provisional constitution of 1970, at least until the 1990s, held a fairly progressive family law process. Iraqi women had access to education, the ability to refuse arranged marriages, and the right to full inheritance; their testimony counted in court; and they had a fighting chance to keep custody of their children if divorced or widowed. Islamic family law would change these rights, and not to women's advantage. Activists say that, judging from drafts of the constitution revealed so far, a woman's right to a divorce without her husband's consent, custody of male children past a certain age, and inheritance would be diminished, and she would not longer be considered equal to a man in the law's eyes.

"Previously, women, although politically oppressed, had their minimal rights, could marry [whom they wanted], not get killed for the honor of men, not [be] forced to wear [a] Hijab, and many things that will follow if the Shiite push enough for an Islamic constitution," Kamguian writes. "Islamists push for Islamisation, killing, genocide, etc., [and] then they say we are preserving Iraq's Islamic identity. For many decades people were living their lives without an active role of religion in it, at least in the most important areas of their public lives."

Should the final draft of the constitution cite Islam as a source of legal inspiration, Mohammed points to one verse, or Sura, of the Koran that will make any legal right difficult to protect and discrimination impossible to reverse. "There is a clear Sura that says women are inferior to men in the Koran," she says. "All interpretation in this phase is impossible: not by judges, top officials or the government. Even in criminal court, women will not be considered strong enough to testify."

Even without the constitution codifying these diminished rights, Iraq has seen a noticeable erosion in secular principles that would have seemed foreign to an Iraqi woman 30 years ago.

"After Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, his government began to exert control in the private sphere, setting in motion a shift toward greater restrictions for women," attests the Women for Women International conference report. "In the 1990s, the status of women in Iraq deteriorated further under the weight of war and sanctions. A number of official resolutions limited the access of women to senior decision-making positions within the government and further restricted their freedom of movement. Since the fall of the Hussein regime, educated and outspoken women, in particular, have been targeted for assassination and kidnapping by insurgents in an attempt to eliminate their presence in public life."

Today, in parts of Iraq controlled by Sunni insurgents, women are ordered to wear a veil; in the Shiite-dominated parts of Baghdad and the south, they face the same, albeit slightly less violent, pressures. And Western media and women's groups have seen a rise of "honor killings" by men of female family members.

Mohammed, one of Iraq's most vociferous activists, maintains the new constitution will not protect women or ensure them individual and equal rights. What's more, she lays a good deal of the blame at the feet of the United States. America, she believes, has abdicated its responsibility to help develop a pluralistic democracy in favor of paying off political allies in the Kurdish and Shiite communities. She says the United States is willing to allow a Shiite fundamentalist takeover, backed by Iran, in exchange for an exit strategy.

"The U.S. occupation has decided to let go of women's rights to a group that can be a strong government," Mohammed says. "Political Islamic groups have taken southern Iraq, are fully in power there, and are using the financial support of Iran in recruiting troops and allies. The financial and political support from Iran is why the Iraqis in the south accept this, not because the Iraqi people want Islamic law."

Drafting the constitution, Mohammed says, "is not for the interest of the Iraqi people but on what to give to certain groups. The Kurds want Kirkuk [an oil-rich city they consider the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan], and the Shiites want the Islamic Republic of Iraq, just like Iran's. The genie is out of the bottle in terms of political Islam [by Shiites] and the resistance [by Sunnis]. America will tolerate any conclusion so they can leave, even it means destroying women's rights and civil liberties. They have left us a regime like the Taliban. It's not limited to women's rights; it's a theocracy. Freedom to speak and self-expression are gone."

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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