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July 20, 2005 latimes.com : World
THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ
Draft Constitution May Deal Setback to Rights of Women
Changes include loss of guaranteed seats in the assembly and erosion of their social status.
By Alissa J. Rubin, Times Staff Writer - Los Angeles Times
BAGHDAD — A draft version of the constitution would make fundamental changes in the legal rights of Iraqi women, undoing decades of progressive treatment and likely sharply reducing the number of women in the National Assembly.
Currently, women hold 31% of the seats in the National Assembly, and under the Transitional Administrative Law that set up the assembly, they must hold at least 25% of the seats.
However, the draft would remove the 25% requirement after two more terms of the assembly, almost certainly resulting in a significant reduction of seats held by women.
Women's rights would also be affected by language stating that women would have the same rights as men as long as there is no conflict with Islamic law.
Similar language on Islamic law is being added to every provision in the constitution after a push by Muslim clerics to emphasize Iraq's identity as an Islamic state.
That probably would mean a return to the practice, common in Persian Gulf nations, of having matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance adjudicated by religious courts.
Under that system Sunnis, Shiites and Christians would have separate courts to deal with such matters.
Under Islamic law, daughters inherit a lesser share of their fathers' wealth than sons do, and divorce is easy for men, who can simply say three times that they divorce a woman to accomplish it. Women, on the other hand, must go through an elaborate and often embarrassing presentation of domestic circumstances with a cleric.
In practice, women's comfort with religious courts depends on their religious background and the views of the individual clerics approached by their families. For instance, a woman in a deeply tribal or religious family may find it difficult, if not impossible, to go to a secular court because of the family reproach it would bring.
The change would substantially alter the current law, which provides a level playing field.
"This sends a very bad signal — it sends a signal that women's rights are not right," said Rajaa Khuzai, a female doctor who is also a member of the Constitutional Committee responsible for the draft constitution and has spoken up on behalf of women's rights in the closed-door sessions. "Why go backward?"
Khuzai was particularly distressed by the elimination of the 25% minimum because, under Iraq's election structure, parties draw up lists of candidates and the 25% minimum guaranteed that at least every fourth person was a woman. If the minimum is eliminated, the parties probably will put women in fewer spots.
Some women in the assembly have begun to circulate a petition to change the new language, and Iraqi women's groups have begun to lobby to change the provisions. But they are expected to meet substantial resistance from clerics, both Shiite and Sunni, who have long wanted to reinstate the practice of resolving domestic matters in religious courts. Men on the committee supported the changes, arguing that it was more fair to eschew percentages. Some argued, somewhat disingenuously, that they would prefer a 50% quota but no one would accept that, so why have any number at all?
"Since men and women are equal, we should not have a specific percent," said Thamer Ghadban, a secular member of the committee, who was formerly in charge of the Ministry of Oil. "If you talk about equality, why not let them take 50%? But others would not like that."
The debate on domestic law also occurred in early 2004, when Abdelaziz Hakim, the cleric who now heads the largest Shiite party, held the rotating presidency of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He proposed reinstating the use of religious courts for domestic matters, and the measure passed easily. But the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq at the time, L. Paul Bremer III, had the authority to reject such changes, and did so.
The issue of women's rights is seen by many as somewhat minor, and so far, few men have spoken up for it in the constitutional debate.
"It's not a problem," said Kasim Daoud, who was national security advisor to former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. "I don't think we should give percents for how many women participate."
Kurds have been quiet so far on the change. But they also seemed not entirely aware of it.
One Kurdish member of the committee, Fraidoon Abdalqadir Faraj, said, "I had not heard about this. I wouldn't agree with it. In my opinion the women in this society play a stronger role than men, and they are half the society… and we have instructions from [Jalal] Talabani, the president, to broaden the participation of women."
Iraqi Constitution May Curb Women's Rights - NY Times