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US Lawmakers Call on Iraqi Governing Council to Guarantee Women's Rights - 2004-02-14

A growing number of U.S. lawmakers are calling on Iraq's Governing Council to guarantee women's rights and individual religious freedom in the country's new constitution.

Lawmakers are concerned about a proposed law put forward by the Iraqi Governing Council that would allow religious groups to apply their own traditions in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. They are worried the measure would allow Islamic law to undermine women's rights and religious freedom.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, Chairman of the Government Affairs Committee, addressed the issue Thursday at a Capitol Hill news conference.

"The problem is that if we embrace in Iraq the Islamic fundamentalist law as a basis for decisions, it will encourage discrimination against women," she said.

Joining Senator Collins was Tamara Sarafa Quinn of the Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq.

"As written, the law would provide for no national uniformity in granting divorces or for awarding child custody, because individual clerics follow different interpretations of religious law," said Tamara Sarafa Quinn. "Over time it is feared that Iraq will become a theocracy where women will be entirely subservient to men and prohibited from running their own lives."

Joseph Kassaab, an Iraqi-born American of Chaldean ancestry and Christian heritage, and currently President of the Chaldean National Congress based in Michigan, also warned of the impact of the Governing Council's proposed law.

"In the hands of an extremist majority, this provision can easily be exploited to use Islamic sharia as the primary source of legislation," he said. "This is problematical and dangerous. Not only to other religious groups that may find the law of sharia unwillingly imposed on them, but also to the protection of the rights of women, other ethnic groups and even other Muslim sectarian groups who may interpret various aspects of Islam differently."

U.S. lawmakers are calling on U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, who can veto the proposed law, to ensure that religious freedom and women's rights are protected in the new constitution, before the scheduled June 30 handover of power to the Iraqis.

Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is the number three Republican in the Senate.

"There are certain fundamental rights that come with being human," he said. "Those are not our rights, they are not rights created or thought up in this country. But they are fundamental to all people, irrespective of where they live. We want the Iraqi constitution to be reflective of that truth. We are not asking any more, we are not asking that Islamic law be ignored or that it is not a reality that this is a predominantly Islamic country. The question is, is there a fundamental right to your faith and to conscience, and that is to me something that must be enshrined in the constitution, other wise the chance for mischief is profound."

A group of House Democrats made a similar appeal in a letter to U.S. Administrator Bremer last week.

Earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed the Bush administration's commitment to seeing that rights, especially women's rights, are respected in Iraq after power is transferred to the Iraqis.

"We would not have succeeded in our mission, if we found that after we set up a new government in Iraq, women in any way are not allowed to participate fully in the society with the same rights as anyone else in the society," he said.

Secretary Powell made his comments before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.