Shia women in Iraq

BAGHDAD (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights activists in Iraq are pleased with the newly minted temporary constitution.

Signing of the constitution has been delayed for at least several days following devastating attacks Tuesday on Shiite Muslim shrines thatkilled at least 170 people at this writing. The constitution was due to be ratifiedyesterday.

Women said earlier they were happy that 25 percent of the seats in the interim government must be filled by women. That is less than the 40 percent quota they sought, but still far better than the 14 percent representation by women in the U.S. House of Congress.

“It’s a victory of sorts,” said Maysoon al-Damluji, deputy minister of culture, who joined public protests and lobbied on behalf of quotas within the Governing Council. “I can live with it.” She said she had been hoping the compromise outcome would be 30 percent and emphasized that 25 percent female representation was “a minimum, not a ceiling.”

Widely described as the most progressive document of its kind in the region, the interim constitution finished on March 1 signals an apparent victory for the country’s resurgent moderate and secularist forces. It will be in effect until a transitional national assembly approves a permanent constitution, probably some time in 2005.

Another Form of Prison Feared

Since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, secular and women’s rights activists have expressed steady concerns that Iraq’s newfound freedom would only lead to another form of prison for the country’s female majority. But the document written by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council after round-the-clock negotiations, contained a pair of conditions sought by women’s activists.

In addition to the guarantee of 25 percent female participation in the interim government, known as the Transitional National Assembly, the document says that Islamic Law, or Sharia, would be just one of several sources of future legislation.

How Sharia would be regarded–whether as sole source of law as conservatives wished or one of a number of sources–was one of the debates that pushed negotiations past the Feb. 28 deadline.

In the end, members of the Governing Council settled on a semantically delicate agreement that establishes Islam as the official religion of Iraq and Sharia as a “source of legislation.” Religious conservatives conceded to this language in exchange for a passage which bans any laws that contravene Islam.

The compromise is likely to sit well with women’s activists, many of whom maintained they were never anti-Sharia. At a Feb.18 women’s rights protest in Baghdad’s Firdous Square, activist Hana Edwar said the question was never as simple as Sharia or not. But a quota system was vital to ensure that any Sharia-influenced legal framework would be interpreted in a way that was just toward women.

“We are not against Sharia because Iraqi family law is based on Sharia,” she said. “Women’s rights can be maintained within a Sharia-based system.”

Details for choosing national assembly representatives still have to be worked out now that the U.S. has shelved its original plan to choose the assembly through a complicated system of regional caucuses.

Early Push to Spell Out Quotas

For many activists, the priority was to get the idea of quotas into the fundamental law and get it in writing. A verbal commitment to women’s rights wasn’t going to be enough.

“We’re an Oriental people. We’re good at talking and saying beautiful things,” said Edwar, who spoke at the Feb. 18 protest. “But we don’t always implement those promises.”

Others were more blunt.

“We know our men,” said Nabaa al-Barrak, a Baghdad University education professor and nominee for deputy minister of education. “We want it in writing.”

By many estimates, the turning point in favor of women’s rights was a late-December decision by the Governing Council to cancel Iraq’s relatively liberal Personal Status Law–which covered family and marital issues. The ruling would have essentially eliminated the idea of civil marriage and placed several aspects of family law, including marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, directly under the control of the country’s religious authorities.

The decision seems to have served as a wake-up call to the country’s moderates to get better organized. One Kurdish observer called it, “The first truly pan-Iraqi issue,” and al-Barrak said, “There are a lot of women’s organizations coming together on this–regardless of religious or political affiliations.”

The original 1959 law it would have eliminated was liberal and secular. It contravened Sharia by decreeing equal inheritance for male and female children and barred men from practicing polygamy without the consent of the first wife. But it had been eroded over the years. In 1963, the Baath Party abolished the inheritance after ousting Abdel Karim Qassem and Saddam Hussein later lifted the ban on polygamy.

In December and January, critics decried the decision as an early attempt by religious conservatives on the Governing Council to establish Sharia. Many women’s activists claimed the decision showed that the Coalition Provisional Authority made a major mistake in only appointing three women to the 25-member Governing Council.

Recipe for Social Division

Others called it a recipe for social division because different religious groups would make their own individual marriage, divorce and inheritance laws–thereby undermining Iraq’s fragile national unity.

“It would be chaos,” Samira Moustafa, secretary general of the Iraqi Women’s League, said in February. “The Christians would have their own law and the Sunnis and the Shiites . . . “

The passage of the law was regarded by many as proof that religious conservatives had a major political advantage over moderates and secularists in the new Iraq. In a country with no tradition of grassroots political activity, the clerics had the upper hand because of the built-in organizational power of the mosque-based network.

The decision was always partially symbolic since all Governing Council decisions must be signed off by top U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer, who had repeatedly pledged not to do so, saying he opposed exclusively religious civil law. Nevertheless, activists lobbied steadily against the law within the Governing Council. In the late stages of the interim constitution negotiations, the personal status decision was repealed, prompting a brief walk-out by conservative Shiite members of the council.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Womens eNews. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and The Economist.

For more information:

Middle East Online–
Outline of Iraq’s new temporary constitution: