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Women facing setbacks under Iraq's new constitution
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


August 24, 2005

One way or the other, Sharia, or traditional Islamic law, will be a presence in Iraq's new constitution, and that means women may have fewer rights in areas of family and civil law than they did under Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime.

That was the bottom line from experts watching as Iraq's constitutional committee continues to struggle with deadlines and defections. They also cautioned that much depends on what form of Sharia - 1,000 years' worth of Islamic law and tradition interpreted differently over the millennium by different Muslim sects - is adopted, and to what degree.

"The Iraqi constitution will absolutely have some reference to Islamic law, but will it be the sole source? The primary source? Or 'a' source? We don't know," said Isobel Coleman, director of the Project on U.S. Foreign Policy and Women at the Council on Foreign Relations.

What is clear, she added, is that the new constitution "will probably represent a setback for women in certain respects, and particularly in regard for family law. The big issue is not whether Sharia plays a role, but how."

Shiite clerics have pushed hard for the adoption of an Islamic state over the opposition of Sunnis and Kurds, who worry about the impact on personal freedoms, and on Friday it appeared that the U.S. government had decided to back the Shiites. In an agreement brokered by American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Islam was to be "a primary source of legislation" in the new Iraqi constitution that also gave clerics sole authority in settling marriage and family issues.

That could mean a switch from the existing system of civil courts to religious courts, said experts.

"What's significant about the Iraqi situation is that they're considering language that says issues of marriage and personal status will be referred to the leaders of the sects, which means we're going to have clerics decide this as opposed to civil courts," said Christina Michelmore, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Chatham College in Pittsburgh.

While life under Saddam's regime was hardly easy, women did enjoy more freedoms than in other Middle Eastern countries under Iraq's civil family laws, which prohibited marriage under 18, arbitrary divorce and male favoritism in child custody and property-inheritance disputes. However, during the 1990s, Saddam cut back women's rights, said Coleman, noting that literacy rates declined and Saddam allowed light sentences for "honor" killings of women.

Today, nearly 50 percent of Iraq's population of 24 million are women, making up 20 percent of the work force and serving as teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians and entrepreneurs. In other, more conservative parts of the Middle East, women are prohibited from taking on those roles. Moreover, Iraqi women score highest of all Arab women on the United Nations' measure of gender empowerment, largely because of their relatively high rate of political participation.

Advocates of modernist, secularist Iraq are in a distinct minority, however - at least on the constitutional committee, whose elected members are overwhelmingly conservative. Those arguing against Sharia "are not the political mainstream right now," said Coleman, noting that one of the constitution drafters told a U.S. representative, "This whole thing about women's rights, this is your issue, not our issue."

Moreover, a number of conservative Shiite women on the drafting committee have argued that Sharia protects them from a modern, secularist society that exploits women. "There are even prominent Iraqi women who argue that polygamy is a good thing today, since there are so many war widows who would otherwise not be able to find a husband."

Iraqi women have already had to adapt to new restrictions. While the Kurdish northern part of the country remains largely secular, women are veiling themselves in the country's more conservative south and in Baghdad, where prominent women's-rights advocates have also been killed by insurgents.

Still, experts cautioned against condemning Sharia, which can be interpreted in many ways and has been successfully incorporated into more moderate Muslim countries.

"The notion that Islam is by definition bad for women is a misapprehension," said Michelmore. Instead, "who gets to decide what Islam says about women, and how that should be implemented in various realms in social, political, economic and family life, is what matters."

"There's no reason to think that because it's Sharia, that Iraq is getting the Taliban," added Coleman. Even if women in Iraq initially suffer, "over time there are many vocal, educated ardent women in that country who will claw back their rights."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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