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Iraqi Kurdish Women Voice Hopes for Constitution

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

For the last several months, civil society and women's rights groups in Iraqi Kurdistan have been contributing to the drafting of a regional constitution that some hope will be better for women than the national version.

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For the last several months, civil society and women's rights groups in Iraqi Kurdistan have been contributing to the drafting of a regional constitution that some hope will be better for women than the national version.
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Pakhshan Zangana

IRBIL, Iraq (WOMENSENEWS)--In a bookcase in her Parliament office in Irbil, Pakhshan Zangana is collecting hundreds of documents, letters and lists of recommendations for the Iraqi Kurdistan constitution.

Civil society and women's organizations have sent her their suggestions since the summer of 2005, when the drafting process for the regional constitution began. Negotiations continue as the Iraqi government--now emerging from a four-month deadlock to select Jawad Maliki as prime minister--establishes itself in Baghdad.

Under Iraq's constitution, the Kurdish regional constitution will take precedence in most areas of disagreement but it is widely expected that constitutional courts will have to iron out the differences. The regional constitution is being debated by a 20-member constitutional committee, but hasn't been reviewed publicly.

The national constitution was accepted in a national referendum last October but remains unratified because of internal turmoil. Once the government forms it will have four months to modify the constitution.

One key difference between the two documents is that the national constitution establishes Islam as a basic source of legislation, while the regional draft does not.

"There's nothing about that in the Kurdistan constitution," says Zangana, a member of the Communist Party and the only woman on the constitutional committee. The regional constitution, she says, safeguards "the Islamic identity of the people of Kurdistan" but refers to the religious freedoms of all other groups.

The 59-year-old Zangana, however, is careful to add that the Kurdish regional constitution is respectful of religious beliefs and traditional society. "There is nothing that contradicts Islam," she says.

Iraqi Kurdistan is composed of three northern governorates that have been operating semi-autonomously since the Gulf War; they exert considerable control over their security, borders, economy, trade and law.

When stability deteriorated in much of the rest of the country after the 2003 U.S. invasion, the northern region bloomed. It developed billion-dollar infrastructure projects, attracted foreign business and upheld its reputation as the most stable and advanced area in Iraq.

Against Rights and Democracy

Zangana says that using Islam as a legislative source is "basically against women's rights and democracy."

Not all agree. Sabriya Ghafar Rahman is a regional Parliament member and founding member of the women's organization of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the third largest political party in the region, which promotes an Islamic basis for legislation. She says the idea that Islam is bad for women is based on misinterpretations of Islamic law.

Advocates of women's equality "believe women should go to work like men, that women should have political, financial and social positions like men," says Rahman, who is also a working mother. "I don't think this is a woman's duty." Although she supports equality of opportunity between men and women, she says she is afraid that secularism will go too far and that women will neglect their duties as mothers and wives.

Mehabad Qeredaxi, advisor on equality issues in the office of the Kurdish prime minister, Nicervan Barzani, takes Zangana's view. "The current constitution of Iraq is flawed against women's rights and it is based on religion and tradition," she says. "If we can enshrine the equality principal in the constitution then we can prevent any violation against women's rights. If we can't do that in the Iraqi constitution then we hope we will be able to have it in the Kurdistan constitution."

Personal Status Law

The regional draft also deals differently with the law that many say is most relevant to women: the personal status law pertaining to divorce, marriage and inheritance.

Article 39 of the national constitution says the personal status law should be applied according to one's religion. This means, for example, that Shiites--about 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million inhabitants--would rely on one court system while the Chaldo-Assyrians--Christians of several denominations who make up less than 2 percent of the population--would use another. But the constitution does not explain it in detail. In a society where sectarianism often transgresses family makeup, Zangana says this is troubling.

"It would lead to the breakup of family and of society where there are different laws that apply to different people," says Zangana, referring to article 39.

The drafting committee for Iraqi Kurdistan, by contrast, is leaning toward having one personal status law that can be applied to all regardless of religion. They would work with a version of the law that existed during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Despite her own secular position, Zangana takes a moderate stance on the regional draft.

Religion, she says, must be incorporated in the regional constitution if it is to be accepted by Parliament and the public.

"According to the tradition and religion in our society, women are like the weak element," Zangana says. Customs and beliefs are, at best, apologetic and protective of women. She is helping to change this, but she adds, "The hardest thing in our struggle is the distance between our ambition and the reality." "The role of the constitution and of the activists is to prepare the society to accept these things gradually," she says.

Bill of Rights for Women

Chilura Hardi

Chilura Hardi, head of the Khatuzeen Center for Social Action, Women's NGO, presented the Kurdistan constitutional committee with a Bill of Rights for Women in February. It was drafted by about 70 participants, most of whom were women representing different organizations and parts of the region. Some men also participated and offered legal advice.

The document is partially based on the Rights of Women in Africa adopted by the African Union in 2003 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly.

"We took all the things we wanted (from those documents) to express them in a Kurdish way," making sure to eliminate the parts about abortion and homosexuality that are not appropriate to the society, says Hardi. While abortion and homosexuality are not illegal in the region, they are subject to strong social and religious taboos.

The bill of rights bans female genital mutilation, polygamy and the giving of women as brides to reconcile families in conflict. Polygamy is not uncommon here and female genital mutilation has been reported in the more rural areas of the region.

Representatives of Islamic parties have been excluded from the meetings on the bill of rights. The manifesto has little chance of being passed in Parliament and has served mainly as a vehicle for some women to express themselves, one organizer said on condition of anonymity.

"We knew they would be completely against what we are doing," the organizer said. "The one way to do it is to keep them out. They'll have their say in the Parliament anyway."

Cyrille Cartier was working at Reuters in Washington, D.C., before she began freelancing in Iraq in 2004.

For more information:

Kurdistan Regional Government:
http://www.krg.org/

International Crisis Group--
"Unmaking Iraq: A Constitutional Process Gone Awry":
http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=3703

washingtonpost.com--
"Full Text of Iraqi Constitution"
(Associated Press):
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/12/AR2005101201450.html