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Religious Shi'ite Women Mobilize for Iraqi Elections


Sunday's elections in Iraq guarantee that women, who make up 55 percent of the population, will have a prominent role in the country's political process. Election laws ensure that one in every three candidates of a political party or coalition running in the elections is a woman. The hope is that women will make up at least 25 percent of the new 275-member interim Iraqi assembly. But in the south central Iraqi city of Najaf, not all Iraqi women are speaking with a single voice.

Fully-veiled from head-to-toe in a long black robe, Najaf provincial council candidate Anwar Uboud-Ali, 34, speaks passionately to Western reporters about her desire to promote women's rights and to help the poor in Iraq.

Ms. Uboud-Ali says she is running as a candidate who will take up the cause of women, the poor, and the dispossessed. She says she is referring to a class of people that has known little except misery and suffering.

In the West, Ms. Uboud-Ali's statement could be interpreted to mean that she wants to help women like her discard the veil and abaya. Western women generally view such attire as a symbol of oppression and subservience to male-dominated traditions.

But Ms. Uboud-Ali and the half a dozen other women on the ticket for the religious Shi'ite Islamist Dawa Party say their intention is to fight for the opposite. Candidate Faliha Kadhim says she believes that a government guided by strict Islamic laws will be better able to protect Iraqi women.

Ms. Kadhim says many women suffered under the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. Most had no rights and certainly no freedom. Ms. Kadhim agrees with religious leaders who have called for a constitution based on Islamic laws. She says those laws would be far more fair to women than the secular laws.

Islamic traditions do encourage people to view women as individuals. So unlike in many Western societies, most Muslim women keep their own names after marriage. They are also allowed to negotiate the terms of their marriages and are automatically given custody of children in a divorce.

In Iraq, civil laws passed before Saddam Hussein took power gave women more specific rights, including the right to vote and to own property.

But Iraqi women's right activist Nawan Ibrahim says under Saddam, ordinary women held virtually no significant posts and were often treated with disdain.

Ms. Ibrahim says the only women able to find jobs and work were members of Saddam's despised Baath Party. Everyone else was ignored.

After the dictator's ouster in April, 2003, Iraqi women quickly began regaining their position in politics and society. Several joined the interim Iraqi Governing Council. Some went to work as senior managers at ministries and at universities. Others founded businesses and became corporate chiefs.

But not everyone welcomed the swift progress Iraqi women were making. Religious militants began threatening women's rights activists. Last year, police in Baghdad found the remains of a prominent businesswoman, wrapped in a head scarf she refused to wear in public.

A fundamentalist attitude toward women started appearing in the Governing Council as well. Religious conservatives on the council vigorously pushed for an amendment, putting matters of marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance in the hands of clerics. The conservatives shelved the amendment only after women's rights activists mobilized a large protest against it and Paul Bremer, the top American administrator at the time, threatened to veto it.

But religious women in Iraq say they do not share the views of secular women, who advocate a clear separation of state and religion. Many female Shi'ite candidates say if elected, they will support measures to impose Sharia Islamic law in Iraq.

Iraqi feminists say they fear that based on the way the law is interpreted, Sharia could severely limit women's role in society. Determined to keep their hard-won rights, the feminists say they foresee a bruising battle on the issue after January 30.

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