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Iraqi Women Differ on Greater Role for Islam in Constitution


Reports that Iraq's draft constitution could give Islamic law a powerful role in society have sparked strong reactions by women's groups, who fear the move will greatly curb women's rights.

Ignoring the wilting summer heat, about three dozen Iraqi women gathered at a busy intersection in the capital last week, demanding Western-style women's rights in the new constitution.

Dressed in short-sleeved blouses with hair flying boldly in the wind, some of the protesters handed out flyers to passing motorists and pedestrians.

Others were more modestly-dressed, with their heads tightly wrapped in Muslim scarves called hijabs. They waved white banners which read, "We want to be equal to everybody. We refuse to be second-class citizens."

The demonstration was in response to reports that Shi'ite Muslim members of the committee drafting Iraq's new constitution are pushing for Islam to be the major source for law in Iraq. Shi'ites are the majority in Iraq and dominate the 71 member committee, mostly made up of legislators elected in January.

The head of the Baghdad-based Women's Freedom in Iraq Movement, Yanar Mohammed, says she is particularly alarmed about reports that the committee would take matters like marriage, divorce and inheritance away from the courts and put them in the hands of clerics.

She says women in Iraq should not be forced to accept the imposition of Islamic laws, known as Sharia.

"We are being forced to turn into something like Afghanistan of the Taleban, where Islamic Sharia rules, where a man can have four women in marriage, where he can marry female children, where domestic abuse is a right for a man to discipline his wife, and even where adultery is punishable by killing," said Yanar Mohammed.

After seizing power in 1968, the secular Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein embarked on a program of achieving rapid economic growth. Millions of women were needed in the work force, so the party enacted a series of education, labor and employment laws, aimed at improving women's status in society.

By 1976, it was estimated that women constituted nearly 39 percent of all teachers, 31 percent of doctors, 25 percent of lab technicians, 15 percent of accountants and 15 percent of civil servants in Iraq.

The number of working women in Iraq continued to grow, until the 1991 Gulf War. The country's defeat in that war also marked a major setback for Iraqi women.

In a bid to bolster his weakened regime, Saddam Hussein played up to conservative religious leaders and their followers by embracing Islamic and tribal traditions and ignoring many women's rights laws passed by his own Ba'ath Party.

United Nations sanctions imposed after the war also had a major impact on Iraqi females because poor families often chose to keep their daughters at home, rather than enrolling them in school.

By the time Saddam Hussein was ousted, in April, 2003, most women and girls in Iraq had been pushed back to their traditional roles in the home.

The 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein gave new hope to women seeking to rejuvenate Western-style women's rights in Iraq.

But not all women agree that stronger adherence to Islamic teachings is the same as oppression.

Jinan al-Rubaie, a religious Shi'ite member of the National Assembly, does not believe Islamic laws pushed women back into the home. She says people should not confuse age-old traditions with what Islamic Sharia really is.

Ms. Rubaie says that, according to the Koran, women should not be forced to do certain things against their will. She says this includes that no one should shout at her and that women should be respected at all times. She says there are customs that deny certain rights to women, but that is not according to Islamic law.

Ms. Rubaie argues that Sharia will give Iraqi women greater freedom to choose her way of life. Switching to English, she bristled at suggestions that an Iraqi version of Sharia will impose oppressive rules, similar to what the ultra-fundamentalist Taleban regime imposed on women in Afghanistan.

Taliban's strict interpretation of the Koran forbade women from going to school or working, showing any part of her face and body, and appearing in public without being escorted by a male relative.

"They are mistaken. The Taleban, they prevented teaching women. Now, we are making it obligatory for women to be in schools," she said. "Taleban prevented women from going outside their houses. Now, we are saying that it is open for women to go outside for work. We are so much different from Taleban, it cannot be compared."

This is not the first time since the fall of Saddam that religious conservatives have tried to get Islamic Sharia to play a constitutional role in women's affairs. Last year, efforts to make Sharia the main source of legislation in the interim constitution were shelved, following protests from women's groups and the United States.

Ms. Mohammed of the Women's Freedom in Iraq movement says the women of Iraq will never give up their demand for secular rights.

"A constitution is a political body that regulates people's relationship with the state. Why should it have religion? Why don't people practice their religion in mosques? That's the question," she said. "I think I will have the final say because I represent most of the freedom-loving people in Iraq and a constitution that will reflect their aspirations will be secular, will be egalitarian, will be non-nationalist."

A Christian member of the Iraqi National Assembly, Jacklin Zomaya, says that a showdown is brewing between secular and religious women here, which she predicts will further divide the country.

Ms. Zomaya says the Iraqi debate over what constitutes women's rights is threatening to tear some communities apart. "This is a serious problem and no one seems to have a solution right now," she says with a sigh.

The committee writing Iraq's new constitution has a deadline of August 15 to finish its work. If it fails, the National Assembly can ask for a six-month extension.