Thirteen Million Women

It looks as if women in Iraq are in big trouble.

With the approach of the 15 August deadline for completing the new constitution, the role of women in society has become a political battlefield. It pits secular Iraqis against newly powerful religious parties who want a greater role for Islam written into the document…Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had some of the most secular legislation in the region. But all that could change, with hardline Shia members of the national assembly pushing for the country to be named the Islamic Republic of Iraq.


A strict interpretation of Islamic law would mean that the evidence of a woman in court would count for only half that of a man. And women would have significantly less say in matters of marriage and divorce. “We believe in equality between men and women,” says Amal Moussa, a member of the Shia coalition that took the most seats in January’s elections. “But it is a limited equality. There are Islamic rules that regulate the family and society, and women and men have different rights and duties.”

I love that kind of thing. We believe in equality (well that sounds good). But it is a limited equality. It means that women are inferior and have to do what they are told. That kind of equality.

“We are a pluralist society and this constitution will determine our future,” Ms Edwar says. “It is crucial for us. We cannot allow it to move us backwards and make a mockery of conventions that Iraq has signed on human rights.” Secular women in Iraq have been through a difficult two years, with relentless violence keeping more and more women indoors and many feeling growing pressure to wear the veil.

Growing pressure to wear the ‘veil’? Oh but why is that a problem? Isn’t wearing the veil an expression of their deep devout pious faith? And of their culture? And of their Otherness? And of their postcolonialism and nonOrientalism? And of diversity? So why don’t they want to? Have they been corrupted by the West – is that it?

“I am worried,” says Yannar Muhammad, a prominent activist who runs a shelter for abused women. “I think the future of women in Iraq is very bleak.”

Not good.

Margaret Owen is also worried.

In March 2004, Iraq adopted an interim constitution called the Tal (transitional administrative law). It was then that Iraqi women won their battle to stop the passing of the proposed rule 137, which, if promulgated, would have destroyed all hopes for women’s equality, dignity and justice in the country, in effect allowing the total subordination of women to men within their families, in the community and in political life. This particular interpretation of the Qur’an would legalise polygamy; divorce by “talaq” (when a husband has only to declare “I divorce you” three times for the marriage to be at an end); honour killings; stoning and public beheadings of women for alleged adultery. But now rule 137’s provisions are back in the new draft constitution.

Rule 137 would legalize honour killings? Really? I’m naive – I thought honour killings were tacitly permitted in many places, but I didn’t realize they were actually legal – anywhere. At least I don’t think I knew that. I wonder if that’s right.

Despite the appalling security situation in Iraq (two Sunni members of the committee who are drafting the constitution were gunned down last week), thousands of brave Iraqi women, from different governorates, risked their lives last Tuesday when they congregated in Baghdad’s Al-Firdaws Square to protest against their exclusion in the draft constitution. The international press, busy reporting the continuing violence of the insurgency, failed to cover this event and it got little publicity within Iraq.

Hmm. That BBC article above said it was two hundred women – not thousands. Unless it’s a different demonstration, but that seems unlikely. I wonder which is the right figure.

The drafts released last weekend are a cause for deepest concern. Written by a committe of 46 men and nine women, they expressly state that the main source of legislation in the new Iraqi constitution is to be sharia law, which will take precedence over international law. Sharia law decrees that “personal status” (that is, family law relating to marriage, divorce, custody, widowhood and inheritance) is to be determined according to the different religious sects. Depriving women of their long-held rights and rendering them subservient to interpretations of Islamic law could well lead to the “Talibanisation” of Iraq and an escalation of violence towards women who rebel. Indeed extremists and insurgents are already using rape, acid attacks and violence to force women to wear the veil. Now a law is set to be passed that will ban widows from working for three months following the deaths of their husbands.

That’s how it went in Iran. (I’ve just read Persepolis – read and looked at. Great book.)

If Iraq is truly to become a democratic state, complying with international human rights treaties and conventions, then its constitution, while upholding sharia law, must ensure that its interpretation does not breach its international obligations.

Wait – what? While upholding Sharia law? After what you just got through saying? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Every day in Iraq, women are beaten, raped, abducted and murdered in “honour killings”. Millions more live in poverty and fear. The new constitution must uphold their rights, for we know that it is only when women have equality with men that there can be true democracy, justice and peace. Iraqi women are imploring the international community to act to protect the lives of 13 million women. Tony Blair and Jack Straw must not remain silent.

Second that.

Update. Sort of legal, maybe, semi-legal. “In November 1998, the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights condemned the practice of honor killings. The two articles in the Jordanian Penal Code, which apply to crimes of honor, are the exonerating law: a section of article 340 in the Jordanian Penal Code (no 16, 1960) stating that “he who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery and kills, wounds, or injures one of them, is exempted from any penalty”; and Article 98 that states: “He who commits a crime in a fit of fury caused by an unrightful and dangerous act on the part of the victim benefits from a reduction of penalty.” That’s from January 1999 and they were working on reforming the law.

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