Iraq: new constitution threatens women

The Abu Dubai-based Information & Technology Publishing‘s online magazine offers an Aug. 14 story by Rhys Jones, “Wronging Iraq’s rights,” that paints a dire picture of the kind of oppressive theocracy that could be enshrined by the new constitution. The Aug. 15 deadline for the new charter has now been extended. But unless sweeping changes are made, “it seems increasingly likely to mean a huge erosion of human rights for Iraq’s 13 million women.”

As it now stands, the new constitution (written by a committee of 46 men and nine women) overturns Iraq’s secular 1959 civil status law and instates a system under which “personal status” (family law relating to marriage, divorce, custody, widowhood and inheritance) would be determined according to the different versions of shariah, according to which sect the citizen adheres to.

Rights campaigners in Iraq say the measure would effectively strip women of any notion of equality before the law. It would legalize polygamy; divorce by “talaq (under which a man may divorce his wife only by stating three times “I divorce you”); honour killings; stoning and public beheadings of women for adultery.

Provisions to this effect (in the form of a proposed “rule 137”) were successfully excluded from the interim constitution known as the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) in March 2004, but have now been incorporated into the final draft of the new constitution.

An excerpt from the latest draft (July 20) of Article Eight on “Duties of Women: Equality with Men” reads: “The state shall provide for the harmonisation of the duties of the women towards her family and their work in society. [It shall provide] for their equality with men in all fields without disturbing the provisions of the Islamic Sharia.”

Campaigners say the draft focuses on the “duties”, rather than the “rights” of women — a clear departure from principles of equality and non-discrimination which Iraq has theoratically embraced by its ratification of such conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In early August, thousands of Iraqi women took to the streets — at considerable risk to themselves — to protest the new provisions.

Yanar Mohammed of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq claim the new draft constitution could lead to the “Talibanization” of Iraq and an escalation of violence towards women.

Extremists and insurgents have already used violence and rape to force women to wear the veil. Now a law is set to be passed that will ban widows from working for three months following the deaths of their husbands.

“We reject the changes prepared on the 1959 law because some Islamic parties want to kidnap the rights of women in Iraq,” says Mohammed. “We reject such attempts because women should be full citizens with full rights, not semi-human beings”

But Mariam Al Rayyes, a Shiite woman member of the drafting committee, says Islam, as the state religion, would be a “main source” for the legislation on women and “personal status.”

“It gives women all rights and freedoms as long as they don’t contradict with our values,” Al Rayyes says. “Concerning marriage, inheritance and divorce, this is civil status law. That should not contradict with religious values.” She adds that during the next two four-year parliamentary terms, women will make up at least 25% of the membership.

The 25% quota reserved for women in decision-making bodies, including the national assembly, was agreed upon in 2003-4 under the auspices of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the UK’s ambassador to the UN. In reality, however, it has now been amended. This quota will only be in effect for the first two elections after the constitution is adopted. This change is in direct contravention of the TAL and rights campaigners say it will have the effect of excluding women from equal participation in governance.

In the UK, the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) — part of the Bar Council, representing some 10,000 barristers in — has appealed to the British government to intervene. In a letter to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, BHRC chairman Peter Carter QC stated: “We are writing to you urgently to express our grave concern at recent developments with regard to the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution, and in particular at the threatened erosion of Iraqi women’s human rights — rights they have enjoyed, under a secular state, since 1959.” Carter asks Straw to use his “influence and power to postpone the date for delivery of the [new Iraq] constitution until it properly reflects respects for internationally endorsed human rights — of men and women, and boys and girls, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, age, or marital status.”

Carter states that Iraq’s women have led in all areas of social, public, cultural and economic life in the Middle East, and were role models for women in neighboring countries for nearly half a century — and warns that this is about to be rapidly reversed. “You will be only too well aware of how repressive and oppressive to women interpretations of Sharia law can be. We can see the consequences for women in Iran today, and in Afghanistan under the Taliban,” he writes.

Within the drafting committee, the dispute over the role of Islam pits the Kurds and other secular-leaning groups against a Shi’ite political bloc dominated by Islamist parties. The Kurds favour the TAL’s current wording that Islam should be “a source” of legislation, and that no law should contradict either Islamic tenets or the principles of democracy or human rights. Now many Shi’te members insist that Islam be designated “the main source” of legislation.

This development alarmed women’s organisations across Iraq, whether Kurds, Sunnis or Shi’ites. Iraqi women have campaigned and lobbied vigorously over the past few months for the new constitution to guarantee women’s rights and abide by international treaties — often at great personal risk. Several politically active women have been assassinated, abducted, raped or threatened.

At a meeting in Jordan last month, held at an undisclosed location for reasons of security, men and women from the Constitutional Drafting Committee and the Transitional Assembly vigorously discussed the issue of women’s rights. But it seemed clear that it would be impossible to arrive at any consensus by the Aug. 15 deadline, whether about women’s rights, federalism, the place of international conventions, or such questions as whether Iraq should be officially recognized as part of the “Arab Nation” (a proposal vigorously opposed by Kurds). The majority of participants voted for a postponement of six months.

But the Bush administration would clearly like to see all early deadlines — for the constitution, referendum and next election — met so that it can withdraw US troops from Iraq, Jones writes.

But delivering a constitution that breaches all international standards on human rights and equality “not acceptable in the name of democracy,” states Yanar Mohammed.

See also WW4 REPORT #96

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