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Proposed Law Could Limit Iraqi Women's Rights

Controversy is brewing in Iraq over the role of women in the country's future. In December, some members of the U.S. appointed Governing Council proposed replacing existing civil family law with Sharia, or Islamic religious law. Some would welcome such a change, others fear it might find its way into the new constitution and set women's rights back for decades to come.

The Governing Council proposal for a new civil family law has not gone anywhere. When it was debated, the Council lacked a quorum, and the proposal apparently never left the chamber. But the issue keeps cropping up in the local media and in discussions about women's civil rights.

And, it is certain to gain even more attention, as Iraqis take over sovereignty from U.S. occupation June 30, and begin work on a new constitution.

Some say the Council proposal should be made into law, since it would bring Iraq more in line with tradition and Islam. Others say it is a sure sign of the growing power of conservative religious elements and a harbinger of oppression of women.

Governing Council member Songul Chapook says she was not informed ahead of time about the debate on the civil family issue. She says the decision by some Council members to even make such a proposal was not a good idea.

"We do not need these decisions," she said. "We need to make another decision for women to help women, not to make more troubles for women. Why [do] we not make another decision for women? We help her to have good jobs and have more support. This is better."

Mrs. Chapook says it is vital women be represented when a new constitution is drafted to ensure that women's rights are taken into account. Despite being an oppressive dictatorship, Saddam Hussein's regime gave Iraqi women more rights than women have in many surrounding countries. Women could vote, attend school, hold public office and own property. A woman had the right to prevent her husband from taking a second wife, which is permitted under Islam. And, women were not required to wear the veil or headscarf.

Critics of Sharia say, under an Islamic family code, those rights would disappear. They also say such a law would prove divisive, since interpretations of Islamic law are sometimes different between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims.

Sheik Hussein al-Badri, the Imam at the Shi'ite mosque of Haja'a Sadda in Baghdad, says Sharia is a comprehensive system of laws designed for the good of women and the whole community.

"If Islamic law imposes restrictions on women, it is done in the interests of the whole community," he said. "Let us take the issue of hejab. Islam says a woman should not show her hair or any part of her body to anyone outside her family. Wearing the hejab, a woman helps keep a man's emotions in check. So, she helps protect a man's feelings."

Governing Council member Songul Chapook sees it differently. She says conservative religious elements want to hold women back.

"Many religious men, they try now to put women in a prison, like in a cage. Why? They do not want her to go out and hear what is happening," said Mrs. Chapook.

Sheik Hussein says that's not true.

"Religious men simply want to guide people who believe in Islam," he said. "But, if the society chooses that Islamic laws are applied, we will use this authority to impose Sharia law on women and other people."

Even among Iraqi women, there are differing opinions about whether the country should adopt secular or Sharia laws.

Manal Omar is the American director of Women for Women International in Iraq, a U.S. based non-governmental aid organization.

She says many Iraqi women say they would opt for Sharia law because they do not want to emulate America.

"If you give them that option - 'do you [they] want an American secular system, or do you want an Islamic, Iraqi system' - just by nature you're going to go toward the religious law, because that's where your heart and your tradition is," said Ms. Omar.

Ms. Omar says it is important that women understand in detail what Sharia would mean and how such laws would affect them, including dress codes, job, and educational opportunities, marriage, divorce, and inheritance rights.

Women's activist Yanaar Mohammed of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, thinks adopting Sharia laws would be devastating. She accuses the U.S.-led coalition of giving too much power to conservative Islamic groups in the country. "How can you give power to political Islam? How can you not take [into account] 60 percent of the society, [who are women]," she asked. "Our support comes from the ground. From the Governing Council, from the coalition forces, we do not see anything. They do not want to hear of us."

Coalition Spokesman Dan Senor says it is not up to the coalition to decide on issues such as a new family law.

"These broader issues are ones that we have envisaged, from the beginning, would be addressed in a constitutional convention, a constitution that would be drafted by individuals that would be directly elected by the people of Iraq," said Mr. Sanor.

Aid director Manal Omar says it is important for America not to dictate to Iraqis what they should do, but she says outside pressure may be needed in some instances.

"You can not throw something like women's rights in the lap of a civil society that hasn't existed for 35 years," said Ms. Omar. "It has to come from somebody who has the muscle to back up a woman's law or a woman's issue."

Iraqi civil society may not be ready to deal with the issue. And yet, Ms. Omar and other experts agree that, in order for any change to be viable, it must come from within the society.

For Iraqi women, there is little time to ensure their voices are heard before a new constitution and laws are written that could dictate their lives for decades to come.