Fighting to Preserve Women's Rights in Iraq

After seeing an erosion of their freedoms, activists are battling a push to replace civil law with Islamic Sharia in the draft constitution.

By Alissa J. Rubin and Asmaa Waguih

Los Angeles Times

August 7, 2005

BAGHDAD — The yellowing photo shows a woman in a knee-length, sleeveless dress. Her short hair blows in the breeze. She wears glamorous dark glasses against the summer glare.

The time is the early 1960s. She could be in John F. Kennedy's America, but she's in Iraq, at a time when it was ruled by one in a string of military strongmen.

Today, few Iraqi women would dare to wear such an outfit. Most cover their arms to the wrist. Only wisps of hair stray from their head scarves. Skirts are often nearly ankle-length.

Jinan Mubarak looked down at the photograph and shook her head.

"I can't wear what my mother was wearing at that time. It's really sad," she said. "Women had better conditions then. Now, they are challenged every day."

Like many women's rights activists in Iraq, Mubarak has plunged into the fight of her life to ensure that the new Iraqi Constitution, due to be completed by Aug. 15, at least preserves the rights women now have. It is far from clear that she and her sisters will succeed.

Shiite Islamic parties in the country, with the tacit acceptance of millions of devout women, are pushing hard to substitute Islamic law, or Sharia, for the civil law that now governs such areas of life as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.

A draft of the constitution published Saturday in the newspaper of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the two leading Shiite parties, calls for men and women to be equal "in accordance with provisions of Islamic Sharia." Legal scholars as well as women's rights activists see that provision as a way to substitute clerics for secular judges and religious rules for civil law.

Although most fights over the constitution divide Iraqis along sectarian and ethnic lines, the question of women's rights reveals one more major fault line in the country's politics.

"There is a conflict between secularism and religion in drafting the new constitution," said Najla Ubeidi, a lawyer and a member of the Iraqi Women's League, one of the oldest women's groups in the country. Ubeidi, like many others, sees the constitution as a struggle for Iraq's soul, a test of whether it will become a forward-looking society that uses the talents of all of its citizens or one that shuts out more than half of its population.

"During the 1960s, there was a real belief in improving women's conditions," Ubeidi said. "We could wear what we liked, go out when we liked, return home when we liked, and people would judge us by the way we behaved."

The Iraqi government's treatment of women improved sharply in 1959 with the passage of its "personal status" law, which melded principles of Sharia with Western legal approaches to family issues. When the Baath Party and later Saddam Hussein came to power, they left the law intact, and despite the atrocities of his regime, Hussein backed strong roles for women in government and embraced a secular state. By the 1990s, Hussein had begun to reduce women's roles and rely more on religious rhetoric, but women still retained their civil rights.

A Religious Tide

Since the U.S. invasion nearly 2 1/2 years ago, Iraq has become far more overtly religious. Although Iraq was long one of the most secular Middle Eastern countries, the toppling of Hussein unleashed a tide of religious feeling, particularly in the Shiite community, which Hussein had brutally suppressed. In some conservative areas, women have been attacked for failing to wear the long black abaya and complete head covering that are standard dress among religious Muslim women here.

Although few women would sanction such attacks, many do accept the primacy of religious law over secular law. Iraqi women's views on Sharia are complex and diverse, with many educated, religious Shiite women supporting Sharia first. If women work in Islamic organizations or are involved in politics through Islamic parties, their loyalty is first to Islamic politics, long suppressed by Hussein, and then to women.

Even women's rights activists acknowledge that the vast majority of Iraqi women, especially those living outside Baghdad, know little about the constitutional debate. If asked, the activists say, those women would probably have few objections to the substitution of Sharia for civil law. Especially in the Shiite-dominated south, women have tended to look to their faith, their clerics and their tribes for support and protection in the face of Hussein's cruelties and the loss of their men during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.

For them, Sharia offered certainty in an uncertain time.

"I much prefer the Sharia for personal issues," said Salama Khafaji, a member of the new National Assembly. "I am very afraid of language saying men and women are equal: What would that mean when it came to the custody of children? A woman wants to bring up her own children even if her husband divorces her."

Khafaji added that if a woman wanted to be sure of her rights in marriage and divorce, she should make her demands part of the marriage contract — a practice permitted under Sharia. But not all families or all clerics would necessarily accede to a woman's demands.

For secular women, and there are many of them, the idea of being governed by clerics is unimaginable.

"We seek a civil constitution that separates the role of law from religion and one that doesn't interfere in the private affairs of the people," said Hanna Edward, head of the Iraqi Al Amal Assn., a human rights and women's rights group.

In the last month, women's groups, spearheaded by activists who spent years in the secular Kurdish territory of Iraq's north where women enjoy an array of rights, launched a nationwide lobbying campaign. They have organized conferences and sit-ins, and sent teams into 12 provinces to inform women about the constitution.

They aim to persuade the most powerful men in the country — those who head the major political parties — to prevent the substitution of Sharia for the current system. They have also met with the new U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.N. Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, both of whom strongly support equal rights for women under civil law.

Notably missing from the list of people with whom they have met are any leading Shiites. "They say they are busy or traveling outside the country," said Shirok Abbayachi, a civil engineer who returned to Iraq in the last year to work on women's issues. "I think they don't like us."

The activists believe they can almost certainly win concessions if they have more time to mobilize women, but they fear that deep suspicion of politics dating from Hussein's rule makes it difficult to get people involved quickly.

"The women of Iraq are really awakening, but raising consciousness does take time," said Edward, a women's rights activist who lived in Syria and Kurdistan during Hussein's regime.

Entrenched Customs

Working against them are conservative customs, which if anything have become more entrenched since the U.S. invasion.

Girls, even from secular families, rarely spend even a night outside their home until they marry, and they rarely marry without their families' explicit blessing. Girls are very conscious of maintaining the family reputation, and even for educated women the trajectory is regimented: By the time a woman graduates from college, she is likely to be engaged or will be soon thereafter.

"Now the hijab is a uniform, not because women want it, but because they are scared not to wear it," said Edward, a petite, intense woman who goes about without a head scarf and is often seen dashing around her downtown office with a cellphone glued to one ear and a land-line phone to the other.

She and other activists want those writing the constitution to focus on three clauses in one draft version of the charter:

•  The substitution of Sharia for the current civil law on "personal status" matters — that is, marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. The language in one draft would allow each person to choose to have their case handled in Shiite, Sunni or Christian court. It is unclear whether there would even be a civil court option. On inheritance, religious law is particularly punitive to women, awarding a sister at most half the amount her brothers would get.

•  The mandate that the state develop the status of the tribes "and benefit from their values and … traditions that do not go against religious principles." The vast majority of families in Iraq have tribal connections, which can either protect or completely subjugate them.

Tribal justice can include the use of women as payment to settle scores between tribes. The tribal chief has absolute power and can order a woman accused of adultery to be killed or can require, or forbid, a marriage. Even women who support Sharia express alarm at any language in the constitution that would accord authority to the tribes.

•  The elimination of the 25% quota for the number of women in the National Assembly. The transitional administrative law requires that not less than 25% of the representatives be women. An early version of the constitution would have eliminated that quota after two terms, all but guaranteeing that women would hold fewer seats, because it is unlikely political parties would include that many women on their slates of candidates. Despite the initially bleak prospects, the women's lobbying appears to be having an effect: The constitutional commission has already restored the 25% quota and has put no time limit on its duration, members of the constitutional committee say.

Safiya Souhail, one of several determined organizers, recently won permission to go into the cafeteria where members of the National Assembly eat lunch. She and several other women now walk the area daily, buttonholing lawmakers.

If the draft of the constitution presented to the National Assembly slights women, she thinks she can count on Kurds, who are mostly secular, to vote for changes, as well as on members of the party of Iyad Allawi, the former interim prime minister with whom she met a few days ago. That is still not enough votes to win, but she and her colleagues plan to work right up to the deadline.

She listed the prominent figures she has met: President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Assembly Speaker Hachim Hassani, a Sunni; and Fouad Massoun, a leading member of the constitutional commission.

"They all gave us their votes," she said. "Hachim Hassani said that as speaker he has to sign the final draft of the constitution, and he promised he will not sign unless our points are in it."