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Growing Influence of Iraqi Conservative Religious Groups Could Spell Trouble for Women's Rights - 2004-02-04

Everything about Iraq's future appears up for debate, including first and foremost what sort of government the country should have, once the Americans return sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30. There is also much discussion among many that the growing influence of Iraq's conservative religious leaders could result in less freedom and less of a role for women.

At an intersection near Baghdad University, the green graffiti on the street sign stands out starkly "Hejab, the veil, is the most beautiful accessory for women" signed the Badr Brigade.

The Brigade is the armed wing of the Shi'ite Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The graffiti is just the sort of message that has some Iraqi women worried. They fear that the growing influence of the conservative religious community spells trouble for women's rights.

In December, some members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council proposed to scrap Iraq's existing civil family law and replace it with one more in line with Sharia, or religious laws. The proposal has gone nowhere, but many Iraqi women fear that, once the U.S. civil administration turns sovereignty over to the Iraqis, the proposal could find its way into law and the new constitution. And, so the debate is on.

A dozen women gather at a small meeting room of a downtown Baghdad hotel. Only a few wear the hejab.

The speaker, Yannar Mohammed, wears no headscarf. She heads the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, a group aligned with the Communist Workers' Party. She says, while the current civil law is far from perfect, the new proposal would be much worse for women.

"The coming Sharia law will allow the marriage of minors," said Mr. Mohammed. "Imagine the situation, a nine-year-old girl can be married to a 60-year-old man, and this is an oppression against females that is institutionalized and this cannot be allowed. In the West, they consider them pedophiles. They consider them criminals, and here the civil law may make it legal."

The regime of Saddam Hussein, although oppressive, did give Iraqi women more rights than its counterparts in many other Middle Eastern countries. Women could vote, attend school, hold public office and own property. A woman was guaranteed 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.

Yannar Mohammed fears all that could change, if conservative religious elements among both the Shi'ite Muslim majority and the Sunni minority have their way.

Sura Altwayjri, from the Committee of Muslim Sisters, disagrees.

"You talk about marriage, a man having three or four wives," she said. "We have found that this system has benefits, especially after the wars the former regime involved us in, where so many women lost their husbands and had no one to care for them.

"You talk about relationships between men and women in Islam," continued Ms. Altwayjri. "Islam does not prevent such relationships. It encourages them, but in a proper social framework. Our relationships lead to marriage. We love our husbands, and that is a successful relationship."

Ms. Mohammed says Iraqi women are going to have to fight for their rights.

"We are here to gather signatures on our petition, and we are going to present it to the Governing Council, to the administrator of the coalition forces, and we are going to make it reach up to the highest institutions and the international community," she said. Across town, the approach is different. Shawaka'a is one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Women here are gathering for a different kind of meeting.

Many of them come once a week to exchange news and ideas and meet with aid workers from a group called Women for Women International. The U.S.-based organization helps women with direct monetary aid, and provides job training and assistance. But, part of the focus is also on women's rights and how to participate in the political process.

Iman, 39, prefers to give only her first name. She is a widow with four children to care for. Her main concerns are economic, trying to find a job and enough money to keep the family going. But she says she hopes the future will bring more freedom for women.

"We talk about ideas for women to participate more in the political process, take part in the government, and get more work," explained Ms. Iman. "And, I want more freedom than before. We want more progress for women."

Many of the other women agree and nod their heads.

One woman, Wuiydad, says coming here to meet with some of her neighbors is something new.

"I am almost 50 years old, and we never went to meetings like this," she said. "We never expected anyone to listen to us, to our opinions, to what we need."

Most of the women here have not heard much about what the politicians are doing and debating. They have all come here in dark robes and headscarves in line with Islamic tradition, but they have been talking about some of the political issues.

When asked whether Iraq should follow secular or Sharia laws, Iman has her own views.

"I know that Sharia organizes some things in our lives, but we should put limits on Sharia," she said. "We should choose something in the middle, not too modern or progressive, but not only Sharia."

Unlike their counterparts across town, the women here are not circulating petitions. But when asked if they plan to vote once elections are held, there is no hesitation.

"Yes, we are going to vote, why not," one of them said. "This is the time of democracy, so, we should vote."

No one knows just how many Iraqi women will turn out to vote when the time comes, or how independently they will vote, or if Iraqi women will be able to organize well enough in time to make their voices heard when a new constitution is written and a new government elected.