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Iraq: Liberal Women Worry Draft Constitution Could Roll Back Some Rights

Members of Iraq's constitutional committee (file photo) Liberal Iraqi women and secular parties fought hard to protect women’s rights in the drafting of Iraq’s first post-Saddam Hussein constitution. But their opponents -- Iraq’s ascendant religious parties -- succeeded in including a vague provision that no law can be passed that contradicts the fixed principles of Islam. RFE/RL speaks with an Iraqi women’s rights activist about some of the uncertainties the provision raises for the future of women’s rights in the country.

Prague, 30 August 2005 (RFE/RL) - Iraq’s draft charter has many references to women and, in some cases, the wording is among the most progressive in the Middle East.

That includes stating that Iraqis are “equal before the law without discrimination because of sex,” and that female citizens have “the right to vote and run as candidates” for public office.

The draft states that at least 25 percent of the seats in the parliament -- the Council of Representatives -- will be reserved for women.

But the document is also the product of a difficult battle to find a balance between the interests of liberal Iraqi female professionals and the values of religious parties that draw their support from traditional families.

Professional women say that as a result, the draft charter contains language so flexible that it could be used to roll back some of the individual rights women now enjoy.

Bushra Samarai, an Iraqi women’s rights activist and program officer for Iraq at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Amman, told RFE/RL that the ambiguity in the draft charter begins with its second article. There the text states that “no law can be passed that contradicts the fixed principles of Islam.” But it also states that “no law can be passed that contradicts the principles of democracy.”

“Islam is a main source for the laws and regulations, and this to me, even though it mentions democracy and rights, puts a lot of constraints on women," Samarai said. "They say that the state will support women to have a job and that they have equal chances as men as long as it does not stand against Shari’a. So, in this context it means that Iraqi women cannot work as judges, even though we already have [female] judges, because it is against Islamic law.”

The draft charter’s effort to make both Islamic and democratic principles the foundations of Iraq’s new order continues a tension that has long characterized Iraqi society.

The society has historically had one of the largest and best-educated professional classes in the Mideast. But it also has a very large, poorer population with traditional religious and tribal values.

Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s secularist Ba’ath Party, Iraq has seen the rise of powerful religious parties, particularly among the Shi’a, which were suppressed by the former regime. Those parties are now fighting hard to increase the role of Islamic law in Iraq and can be expected to continue doing so in the future.

The religious parties tried unsuccessfully in the drafting of the constitution to put all Iraqi laws governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance under the jurisprudence of clerics.
Some observers say the draft constitution’s assigning apparent equal weight to Islamic and democratic principles could open the way to removing some of the safeguards for women in how the religious and civil courts currently function.

But secular Iraqis and particularly women’s rights activists were able to maintain an existing system whereby Iraqis can choose to adjudicate their domestic disputes according to either religious or civil laws.

That right to choose is stated in Article 39 of the draft charter, which states that “Iraqis are free in their adherence to [free to define] their personal status according to their own religion, sect, belief, and choice.”

Still, some observers say the draft constitution’s assigning apparent equal weight to Islamic and democratic principles could open the way to removing some of the safeguards for women in how the religious and civil courts currently function.

One such safeguard is an understanding that clerics’ rulings in domestic disputes should not grossly exceed civil standards. Much of Iraq’s existing civil code is drawn from Islamic law but from moderate trends.

“With the [existing] law you can go with one sect to a certain point, but you cannot break the civil law," Samarai said. "But here [under the new constitution] you can go with the sect, the regulations they have, and you don’t have to worry about the civil law.”

Strict interpretations of Shari’a give priority to the interests of husbands and male relatives in domestic cases, including regarding grounds for divorce, custody of children, and rights of inheritance.

Samarai said she sees the stage as now set for a continuing battle between secular and religious parties as each side tries to tip the ill-defined balance between Islamic principles and democracy in their favor.

She described the fight this way: “The sense I got when I read anything [put in the draft by the religious parties] about women is that they encourage women just to stay at home and make kids. But what if a woman does not want to get married? What if a woman wants to be an astronaut? Then she won’t have the same rights [as men]? If you look at it this way, [the draft constitution] is totally unacceptable. But, again, in different articles [of the document] there are some points where, if the Iraqi women are smart enough, they can base their demands on these points and they can get a lot of their rights.”

However, Samarai predicted the struggle will not be easy.

She said that in the 1960s and 1970s, when Iraqis enjoyed relative prosperity, many women went to university.

“We were able to sit in big groups in universities and in coffee shops and say what we wanted to say and we fought for our rights and the rest of society accepted what we wanted,” she recalled.

But now, as Iraqis struggle economically, the situation is different.

“Now there are just a few activists here and there in Iraq still fighting,” she said. “The rest just take it one day to the next."

See also:

"Women's Rights Activists Press for Gender Equality"

"Islamist Women Speak Out On Constitution"

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