US Lawmakers Say Iraqi Council Plan Would Cut Women’s Rights

Iraq’s governing council has quietly approved a plan to replace some existing legal rights of women with Islamic law or “Shariah,” according to 44 U.S. lawmakers, who warn Washington of a “brewing women’s right’s crisis” in the U.S.-occupied country.

In a letter sent to President George W. Bush on Monday, the federal politicians, led by Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Darlene Hooley, complain the move will reverse legal guarantees for Iraqi women, who were among the most liberated in the Arab world.

“To prevent this order from taking effect, we strongly urge you and your administration to take steps now to protect the rights of Iraqi women,” wrote the lawmakers, who represent both Bush’s Republican Party and the opposition Democrats.

The White House had no immediate comment.

The lawmakers were referring to IGC resolution 137, approved by the 25-member body Dec. 29, which replaces Iraq’s 1959 personal-status legislation with religious laws to be administered by clerics from the country’s different religious faiths, depending on the sect to which the parties in any dispute belonged.

That change could affect everything from the right to education, employment and freedom of movement, to property inheritance, divorce and child custody, according to the letter writers.

The resolution must still be approved by the de facto government in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Ambassador Jerry Bremer, in order to become legally binding.

In a letter to Bremer on Friday, MADRE, a New York-based international rights advocate for women, argued that IGC’s action lacked transparency and was taken without any public debate or open consultation, with only a minority of council members present.

“In less than 15 minutes of discussions, the IGC – none of whose members were elected by Iraqis – passed Resolution 137, effectively abolishing women’s legal rights in ‘liberated’ Iraq,” said MADRE’s associate director, Yifat Susskind.

“Under the direct authority of the Bush administration, the IGC has privileged sectarianism over inclusiveness and violated core principles of democratic governance.”

Iraqi women, only three of whom serve on the IGC, are also protesting the resolution, according to recent press reports.

“This will send us home and shut the door, just like what happened to women in Afghanistan,” Kurdish lawyer Amira Hassan Abdullah told the Washington Post last month. “The old law wasn’t perfect, but this one would make Iraq a jungle. Iraq women will accept it over their dead bodies.”

The IGC’s action, according to various reports, came at the behest of conservative Shiite members of the IGC when Abdul Aziz Hakim, a Shiite who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), chaired the body. Secular and Kurdish members of the council have since argued against the measure.

While the CPA is considered highly unlikely to ratify the change, women’s rights advocates are concerned that Muslim conservatives could push it through the transitional government to which sovereignty is supposed to be returned by the CPA no later than Jun. 30.

Shia clerics are not only expected to increase their representation in the government, but they might be supported by conservative Sunnis, as well. Since the ouster of former president Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces last April, religious conservatives in both Shia and Sunni parts of Iraq are said to have become increasingly prominent and influential.

“Although this law would not go into effect until after Jun. 30, 2004 … we will be unable to stop the implementation of these types of harmful laws,” said the lawmakers’ letter to Bush. “It is imperative that we act now to reverse this decision, or the lives of Iraqi women will be worse because of America’s actions. We cannot allow that to happen.”

The lawmakers said they were particularly angered by a column on women’s rights by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in Sunday’s Washington Post. Wolfowitz is currently in Baghdad reviewing the military and political situation there.

The column, “Women in the New Iraq,” argued, “women must have an equal role and more women should be included in Iraqi governing bodies and ministries,” but failed to mention the growing controversy over Resolution 137 or the threat to women’s rights it poses.

“I would hope that Mr. Wolfowitz and this administration aren’t viewing this situation through rose-colored glasses,” said Maloney. “There is a women’s rights crisis on the horizon, and we must take action.”

“As ruthless a place as Iraq was under its former dictatorship, women did hold basic rights and were educated participants in society.”

But in the postwar period, she went on, “women have been brutally attacked and discouraged from participating in civic activities. The governing council’s rash move has started Iraqi women down a dangerous slippery slope that ends in a human rights crisis. The time to act is now or never.”

“After making tremendous strides for equality and parity in Iraqi society, the women there are now being forced to fight yesterday’s battle anew as some elements in their society attempt to roll back the hands on the clock of progress,” said Johnson.

“It would be utterly ironic if the women of Iraq were forced to grapple with an age-old regime of oppression even more despotic than the one we liberated them from during the war,” she added.

The Bush administration had originally planned to oversee the writing and ratification of a new constitution before handing sovereignty back to an Iraqi government.

While US lawyers are continuing to work with the IGC on an interim charter that reportedly includes equal rights for women and minorities, there is no guarantee the principles enshrined in it will be incorporated in a new constitution.

The early draft of the interim charter calls for at least 40 percent of the membership of any interim legislature and constitutional convention to be women, but IGC officials have indicated that 20 percent is what will probably be agreed on.

In its letter, MADRE argued the resolution not only threatens women’s rights, but might also worsen growing sectarian tensions in Iraq. The proposal, “would mean the introduction of separate provisions and rules for each of the various sects in Iraq, and will thus threaten the fabric of Iraqi civil society,” it adds.

Zakia Ismael Hakki, a retired judge, told the Post the resolution will “send Iraqi families back to the Middle Ages. It will allow men to have four or five or six wives,” she said. “It will take away children from their mothers.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.