Iraqi Constitution and women's rights

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One of the greatest concerns regarding the drafting of an Iraqi Constitution is the issue of women's rights, particularly rights that are threatened by the creation of an Islamic-style government.


Overview: Women's Rights in Iraq

"Women in Iraq have for many years benefited from one of the most modern and permissive societies in the Middle East. Upper class women began to enter the country’s job market in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1963, the Ba’ath regime came to power, paving the way to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. However, among the Ba’ath party goals was liberation of women. In 1979, the Iraqi constitution declared all women and men equal before the law. Compulsory education through age 16 enabled women in Iraq to become the most educated and professional in the region and working outside the home became the norm. Iraqi mothers received generous maternity leave and in 1980 women could vote and run for election. In the early 80s, women made up 40 percent of the nation’s work force. The Unified Labor Code called for equal pay, benefits and promotions for men and women. In 1989, 27 women were elected to Iraq’s 250-seat National Assembly, according to the Washington Report.

"After the 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, women’s progress halted. UN sanctions were painful to Iraqi women and children in particular. 1.5 million people died, including 500,000 babies – as a direct result of economic sanctions. Mere survival became increasingly difficult for women who once enjoyed relative economic stability. Simultaneously, in an effort to gain support of other Arab countries, Saddam Hussein allowed a shift toward observance of Islamic Shari’a, and he gave tribal leaders freedom to act upon traditional tribal codes. The results were lethal to women. In 1990, Saddam Hussein amended a law allowing honor killings without penalty; men who killed female relatives for suspecting their relationships with other men, for adultery, or for having been raped, were exempt from punishment. By 2002, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women reported that over 4,000 Iraqi women had been killed for hurting their family’s reputation." [1]

"Unlike many others in the region, the women of Iraq were allowed to work, vote, drive, and study in the 1970s and 1980s. But after the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi dictator - in an effort to appease the majority Shiite population that he had repressed so brutally - took a harder line on women, depriving them of free choice in marriage and the freedom to travel without being accompanied by a male relative. After Hussein's overthrow, hard-liners have worked to restrict women's rights." [2]

Iraqi Interim Constitution

Ala Talabani and Zainab Al-Suwaij, co-founders in 2003 of Women for a Free Iraq, "labored hard to write into Iraq's interim constitution that men and women are equal. Working at the grassroots level, they motivated women to gather more than 50,000 signatures calling for 40 percent of positions in national and local government to be set aside for women. They insistently lobbied members of the Governing Council and encouraged Raja Al Khuzai, a woman member of the Governing Council who had previously said she felt quite ignored by her male colleagues, to press the issue. Because of the increasing pressure - and against a lot of opposition - a 25 percent quota for women was approved. Thanks to this success, today there are six Iraqi women cabinet ministers, including one dedicated to women's affairs. The interim constitution also guarantees at least a quarter of the 275 seats in Iraq's new National Assembly to women.

"Al-Suwaij and Talabani also worked hard to gather 45,000 women's signatures on a petition to stop an attempt to restrict women's rights by religious leaders on the Governing Council who attempted to impose Sharia family law in the form of 'Resolution 137.' Al-Suwaij said Resolution 137 would not have allowed women to leave their houses without asking for permission from their husbands, while Talabani pointed out that the resolution would have allowed men to marry several women without going to a court. Therefore, she explained, the marriages would not have been registered and, as a consequence, the first wife could easily have lost custody of her children. Women would have also lost the right to receive inheritance. Talabani even met with Paul Bremer, former U.S. representative in Iraq, to ask him to use his influence against the proposal. 'We would have been in a worse situation than the women of Afghanistan before the American occupation,' Al-Suwaij said. Resolution 137 was defeated this past March [2004].

"Such victories bring with them significant risks, for women in general and Talabani and Al-Suwaij in particular. Iraqi women are often victims of rape and harassment, and a number of women have been killed. In March [2004], gunmen killed two of the women who helped launch the Fatima al-Zahra Center for Women's Rights. Talabani and Al-Suwaij feel the risks are worth facing." Source: Harvard Gazette, November 18, 2004.

Constitution Will Not Protect Women

Yanar Mohammed, "one of Iraq's most vociferous activists, maintains the new constitution will not protect women or ensure them individual and equal rights. What's more, she lays a good deal of the blame at the feet of the United States. America, she believes, has abdicated its responsibility to help develop a pluralistic democracy in favor of paying off political allies in the Kurdish and Shiite communities. She says the United States is willing to allow a Shiite fundamentalist takeover, backed by Iran, in exchange for an exit strategy.

"'The U.S. occupation has decided to let go of women's rights to a group that can be a strong government,' Mohammed says. 'Political Islamic groups have taken southern Iraq, are fully in power there, and are using the financial support of Iran in recruiting troops and allies. The financial and political support from Iran is why the Iraqis in the south accept this, not because the Iraqi people want Islamic law.'

"Drafting the constitution, Mohammed says, 'is not for the interest of the Iraqi people but on what to give to certain groups. The Kurds want Kirkuk [an oil-rich city they consider the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan], and the Shiites want the Islamic Republic of Iraq, just like Iran's. The genie is out of the bottle in terms of political Islam [by Shiites] and the resistance [by Sunnis]. America will tolerate any conclusion so they can leave, even it means destroying women's rights and civil liberties. They have left us a regime like the Taliban. It's not limited to women's rights; it's a theocracy. Freedom to speak and self-expression are gone.'" [3]

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Bush administration on women's rights in Iraq

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