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Iraq: Islamist Women Speak Out On Constitution

Women's issues have been a key topic of debate as Iraqis draft their new constitution RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq (RFI) correspondent Asma al-Sarraj recently interviewed female Islamist activists on the constitution for the weekly program "Her Issues," which aired on 1 August. The interviews were a follow-up to interviews with concerned "secular" Iraqis on the constitution broadcast on 25 July (see "Draft Constitution Signals Loss Of Rights" --> /featuresarticle/2005/7/1E4DD0A6-0818-4DC8-AD99-F05A52FB3AA3.html and "Women's Rights Activists Press for Gender Equality" --> /featuresarticle/2005/8/C33109D8-1D5B-4C24-A6D5-680D0938F871.html ). Al-Sarraj spoke with Mahdiya Abd al-Lami, a member of the Muslim Women's Federation (Ittihad al-Mar’a al-Muslima) who advocates a constitution based on Islamic law. Al-Lami organized a 19 July counterprotest to a liberal women's demonstration in central Baghdad. Al-Sarraj also interviewed Islamist activist Salama Sumaysim, who said she represents the voice of "moderate Islam."

RFI: Why do you believe that freedom [if stated as a constitutional principle] means decadence? Why are you concerned over this issue?

Abd al-Lami:We support freedom, but not in the concept that we can see currently. Islam is the first [system] to have called for the freedom of women and to have treated women with respect. Islam highlighted the importance of woman.

RFI: What are your current plans? What is the concern of Islamist women now?

Abd al-Lami: The demands raised by [secularist demonstrators]...are demands contradictory to Islam.

RFI: Why? They demand the implementation of [international] agreements that arose from decades-long fight for the rights of women and from studying the situation of women all over the world. They demand that these agreements be incorporated in the constitution.

Abd al-Lami: Yes. All of us, as women of Iraq, were oppressed for many years. Now, everybody fights for something better. Efforts should be spent on laying down a solid basis for improving the situation of Iraqi women in a complex way. We do not want that one opinion be given priority over another. We want justice, not equality.

RFI: What is your objection to equality?

Abd al-Lami: If we demand an absolute equality between men and women, that would mean depriving women of certain rights.

RFI: How?

Abd al-Lami: For example, the woman is the one who takes maternity leave, not the man. If women were equal in law, they would be deprived of this legitimate right. When a woman gives birth to a child, she has to care for it and raise it properly. Men are not engaged in that.

RFI: This is rather a case of the biological difference between men and women, as also defined in international documents.

Abd al-Lami: Indeed, the biological difference between men and women is clear.

RFI: But we are not going to speak about the biological difference. We are going to speak about the cultural difference as society has set legal limits to the behavior of women, depriving them of many chances only because they are marked with this biological difference.

Abd al-Lami: We want women to be presented as people, not as women. They must be presented as people in Iraqi society. They must participate in all sectors of political, cultural, and social life along with men.

RFI: Don't you think this demand of yours has a lot in common with the demands of women’s movements worldwide, which don't want women to be dealt with as female or as a thing?

Abd al-Lami: I share some of their demands, but not all of them. We see a difference in what they want in the interests of Iraqi women and what we, for our part, want, likewise in the interests of Iraqi women. We oppose some details [of their demands] that are in conflict with Islamic law.

RFI: You now have representatives taking part in writing the draft constitution. The women who have expressed their fears are those who have no representatives. They are, for instance, leftist, secularist, and Christian women. Why are you against them?

Abd al-Lami: No, I have not said we were against them. Islam holds the patronage over the whole specter of Iraqi society. We all are brothers and sisters in humanity.

RFI: But you impose your conditions and your measures on them.

Abd al-Lami: Why should we impose anything? Why should not we say, 'a language of understanding and dialogue?' We can agree with each other.

RFI: If a constitutional principle is laid down, it is in a form imposed on all. All subsequent laws will be enacted according to it.

Abd al-Lami: It may be possible to reach decisions that do not form any imposition or enforcement from any party. Plans may be made to meet the demands of all parties. We will not impose on them anything they do not want.

RFI: You, personally, are afraid of decadence. You lived in the times of the former regime when the so-called “campaign of virtue” was launched, there was even [punishment by] decapitation, as you know. None of this managed to overcome the negative phenomena produced by the regime itself. Why are you then afraid of progressive women activists who know what they say, who know the limits of freedom? Why are you not afraid of dictatorial rule and want a dictatorship to be repeated on women?

Abd al-Lami: We do not want to re-introduce the dictatorial rule. That is a closed chapter. We must solve the problem of progressive and active women who were marginalized. We agree with them as I have already said. We agree with them as far as the will to improve the situation of Iraqi women who were oppressed for many years. So, I do agree with them in providing women with human rights. Those [rights] are not in conflict with Islamic law, and that is our only concern.

Sumaysim: I want to calm [liberal women] down. I, as an Islamic writer and researcher, do not see it as bad news if women are treated and defined according to the Islamic text [of the Koran]. I hope this issue is incorporated into a framework of really applying Islam. But I doubt Islamic practices will be introduced.

RFI: Don'tt you think that already the text [of the Koran] sets a clear discrimination between man and woman in terms of the “guardianship” [of men over women], inheritance, testimony [before court], marriage and divorce, etc.?

Sumaysim: This is how men have misused the text of the Koran. I do not say this is its absolute and final application. It is the application by men, the patriarchal application of the Koranic and other texts, a mental product. It does not mean that the problem is in Islamic law.

RFI: But who will guarantee that this mentality, interpreting religion arbitrarily so that it serves the interests of patriarchy, is no longer present here?

Sumaysim: I want to stress one point: This extreme attitude that leftist, liberal, and democratic forces have taken in handling these affairs only provokes an opposite extreme. I call for dialogue. Regarding these activists, whom I do not like to call “secularists” because I have a particular view on the problem of “secularism” but who oppose the application of Islamic law, why do they not gather with activists who support the application, or the practical implementation of terms, of Islamic law? Why don't they try to understand each other?

RFI: Since you have called the leftists, secularists, and liberals “extreme,” what about those who have been writing the constitution draft? How about those [women] whose views have been [transparent], beginning from their [Islamic] dress and ending with the [Islamic] formulations that they want to set in the constitution?

Sumaysim: I reject extremism in all forms.

RFI: So why have you labeled as extremists those who want to defend their rights?

Sumaysim: Through my work at the Ministry for Women’s Affairs, I have noticed one very regrettable phenomenon: Those [secularist] women try to accuse all Islamic-oriented women equally, be they moderate or non-moderate. The problem is mainly that the term “secular” has come to be used in various contexts, sometimes correctly and sometimes not. “Secularism” does not mean detachment from religion. No, you can be a believer and a secularist, or, you do not want Islam be used politically. This is the right of every citizen. I believe that the prime human right is the freedom of belief. So how could I abstain from a particular religion?

RFI: How do you explain the fear of [liberal] women that their issues will be bound by religion?

Sumaysim: This has been a subject of misuse. I see in it an unjustified media war. There is an issue that some people want to impose on public opinion. There is, so to say, a conspiracy to push a bigger issue through. I do not see any problem between women’s issues and religion. Stronger than that is the conspiracy where women have been misused as pretext.

RFI: Let us go back to reality, to the draft constitution and the demands of Islamist versus liberal women. For long months, many called for incorporating international agreements as one of the sources of legislation, but they have not been incorporated in either of the two drafts published in Iraqi newspapers.

Sumaysim: This is a very important issue. The Constitution Drafting Committee claimed that it had accepted these proposals. We have tried our best through NGOs, a declaration of intellectuals, and several [other] activities. I personally, as a private subject, have always demanded and appealed to [committee members]. Is it possible to ensure the rights of women unless we apply the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights? I must ask: Where are the experts with their opinions? When they consulted experts on constitution law, did not a single one of them remind them that there are international agreements, charters, conventions, and declarations valid since the establishment of the United Nations and ratified by all countries of the world?

RFI: Another issue is equality. Why have Islamic parties and blocs within the National Assembly taken a negative stance towards the principle of equality between man and woman?

Sumaysim: I, as an Islamist -- and that may be why I have been rejected by Islamists themselves -- look at the idea of equality through the prism of the Koran that declares that God does not distinguish among people, except according to the single measure of piety and good deeds. When God sees a good deed, He appreciates it, irrespective of whether it has been done by a man or a woman. Almighty God does not care whether the person is a man or a woman; the important thing is the good deed. The good deed can be demonstrated in creativity and various achievements, in writing and all such activities. But if they consider themselves higher than Almighty God and focus on other factors....

RFI: How do you explain their [ women Islamist female activists’] call for inequality?

Sumaysim: The demands of those women are related to the programs of political parties. They are obliged to go out [in demonstrations] because they have to follow a political program. And, the political program is related to a seat in the parliament. Such a seat in the National Assembly is worth some $1,000 [in salary]. So this is very important.

RFI: What will the situation of women be like if Islamic law is applied in Iraq?

Sumaysim: The flowing garment under which Islamic law has been presented is the source that causes the fear. It would have been different had it been said that [the constitution] should not be in contradiction with Islam. But the term “Islamic law” (shari’a) has been the subject of various imposed interpretations, and this is very dangerous. With this, we will also enter a struggle for the correct understanding [of the Koran], a struggle that has been continuous since the first khalifas until now. Only now, has it started to affect the details of life, as life became diverse and globalization has interfered. If our destiny as people, as women, as children, as a society, if our attitude toward sciences and knowledge become defined by this factor, this will be dangerous.

(Translation by Petr Kubalek.)