TV & Radio
July 27, 2005
As religious extremism flourishes in Iraq, particularly in the south, more and more women are finding themselves under intense pressure to wear the hijab (GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD/GETTY IMAGES)
The Iraqi women who fear that democracy will crush freedom
From James Hider
Oppression and inequality may be enshrined in the new constitution
SUHAIDA MAYA never used to wear a hijab, the headscarf that Muslim women don as a mark of religious modesty. An English teacher from Shattra, a town in central Iraq, she always wore whatever she wanted.
Now she and her daughter both cover up for fear of the rising number of Islamist puritans in the south.
“We have to cover up. The Islamic parties even come into schools’ sports lessons and tell girls that they have to wear skirts over their tracksuits. It’s like being in Iran,” she said, her defiance shown by the bright pink of her unwanted hijab, and the women’s rights group she runs.
Many women in Iraq, especially in the Shia south, are increasingly concerned that Islamic parties are imposing their strict religious ways on women who once enjoyed some of the most liberal rights in the region.
Leaked drafts of Iraq’s forthcoming constitution bear out fears that restrictions on their rights may soon be enshrined in the law. The latest copy of the charter, due to be finalised in three weeks, revealed wording that could roll back a 1959 secular law that enshrined women’s equality.
Article 19 of the draft states that “the followers of any religion or sect are free to choose their civil status according to their religious or sectarian beliefs”. In other words, domestic issues, including the issues of divorce and women’s inheritance, could fall under Islamic codes that human rights advocates say would make women second-class citizens.
Under some rigid interpretations of Islamic law, a husband can divorce his wife merely by stating three times in front of her that their union is terminated. Women’s testimony in court is also given less weight than men’s, at a time when rights groups say domestic violence is rising rapidly. Obtaining convictions in rape cases would be particularly difficult, analysts say.
Another problem would be that many Iraqi marriages are mixed, and it was not clear who would decide which sectarian law would resolve domestic disputes. “These are the dark days we are going through,” Yennar Mohammad, the head of the Baghdad-based Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, said. “Imagine you have a committee where half the constitution writers are Islamist groups and some of them are nationalist groups with a tribal mentality. We are looking at a committee, or selected misogynist group, that have only one thing in common . . . that they want to keep women in an inferior status in this society.”
A serious concern for Ms Mohammed is the possibility of young girls being married off. She said: “Under Islam, when the Prophet married his last wife, she was nine years old. In the United States they give a name to this kind of sexual union. Under Islam this is legal and anyone can do it.”
The issue is symbolic of the dilemma facing Western diplomats, who insist that Iraq has the democratic right to write its own constitution, but worry that dominant religious conservatives may use that very freedom to crush democratic development.
Zalman Khalilzad, the new US Ambassador to Iraq, voiced his fears for women’s rights. “A society cannot achieve all its potential if it does things that prevent — weakens the prospects of — half of its population to make the fullest contribution that it can.”
Not all women want equal rights, however. Ethar Moussa, the editor of the magazine Our Eve, sponsored by a leading Shia Islamist party, argues that there is no equality in divine law, and creating it could lead to corrupting Western influences.
“When we come to have outright equality, the door would be wide open for many liberties that are basically unacceptable,” she said, her face veiled and her body covered. “The Islamic principle states that there should be justice, not outright equality between men and women . . . all we want is justice and this is enough.”
That is not enough for Ms Mohammed. She said: “We are practically being turned into slaves by the constitution, by admitting that Islam is the formal religion of the country, and by handing over the writing of it . . . to a bunch of religious bigots who want to see women inferior in society.”
Women’s advocacy groups have started demonstrating publicly, but they fear that their lobbying is being overshadowed by more pressing issues. “Unfortunately we don’t have a militia,” Masoon al-Denuchi, the Deputy Minister of Culture and president of the Iraqi Women’s Group, said bitterly. “The only thing we can do is lobby and talk and talk and talk.”
A LAW UNTO THEMSELVES
- Islamic law, or Sharia, (which means “the way to the water”) is enforced in various forms in the Middle East, most notably in Saudi Arabia, where amputations, flogging and the death penalty are variously used for crimes such as rape, drug smuggling, murder or renouncing the Muslim faith
- The laws of the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam are based principally on the Koran, but differ in their use of supplementary religious sources compiled after the death of the Prophet Muhammad
- Sunni law draws also on the Hadith (collected sayings of the Prophet), the ijma (consensus of the community), and qiyas (the various forms of reasoning)
- Shia law is also founded on anecdotes from the lives of the 12 imams that followed the Prophet, but the code also has roots in local customs
- Under Shia law, daughters inherit everything their parents leave. Under Sunni rules, daughters share their inheritance with uncles, aunts and grandparents
- Shia Islam allows temporary marriage, in which a man can marry a woman for a short period of time while away from his usual family. Sunni law does not allow the practice