Iraqi women's rights must be protected

Iraqi women's rights must be protected
Comment: Women's rights activists in Iraq insist on the necessity of civil struggle, linking their fight for equality with that of the fight for a civil state, writes Zahra Ali.
6 min read
11 Dec, 2017
The legal age of marriage in Iraq is currently 18 for both sexes [AFP]
The 2003 US invasion of Iraq led to a strengthening of religious power and new threats to the rights of Iraqi women. 

Recent months have seen debate about the reform of the Personal Status Law, which would represent a significant rolling back of the gains of the July 1958 revolution.

On 1 November 2017, a legislative reform radically challenging the rights of Iraqi women was put before parliament. It consisted of a series of amendments to Personal Status Law no 188 (1959), which governs the rights of women in matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.

The timing of the proposal is indicative of the political climate in Iraq, currently characterised by the growing strength of conservative social and religious forces, as well as by extreme instability.

The Personal Status Law (PSL), adopted in 1959, is based on both Sunni and Shia religious jurisprudence. It applies to all Muslims, Sunni and Shia, and permits cross-denominational unions.

The proposed amendments to the law introduce the possibility of enshrining new denominational codes, such as the "Jaafari Law", dominant among Iraqi Shias, in which the marriage of a young girl is permitted once she reaches the age of nine; considered the age of maturity. The legal age of marriage in Iraq is currently 18 for both sexes.

Civil society activists denounced the cynical use of religion by the ruling elites

The reform would open the door to a dilution of the authority of state-designated judges and a strengthening of that of religious tribunals. Since 2003, cross-denominational and non-religious approaches to personal rights have been steadily eroded by the social and political forces controlling the country.

Since the US invasion, Iraq has been led by conservative Islamist Shia political parties, while the country's streets are controlled by religious militias, enforcing their will through violence.

A growing threat since 2003

In the first months of the US occupation, at a meeting of the Iraqi interim government in December 2003, conservative Shia Islamists proposed the creation of a new PSL (Personal Status Law) following the Lebanese model, with separate laws for different religious communities.

It was the first time such an arrangement had been suggested since the birth of the Iraqi Republic on 14 July 1958. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic High Counsel of Iraq, one of the main Shia Islamist parties to come to power alongside the US forces, said the proposal supported freedom of belief, which had been crushed by the previous regime.

It is more specifically a demand for the recognition of Iraqi Shia identity, from a community and political faction that suffered discrimination and violent repression under the previous regime.

The proposal would mean the legislation governing private affairs (marriage, inheritance, divorce), and encompassing the essential elements of women's rights, would no longer be applied in a unified way to all Iraqi citizens. A specific code for Shias would be added, with the community able to choose to use its own code.

The proposal was not implemented, but was inserted into the 2005 constitution in the form of article 41. That article has not yet been enforced, and for the moment Law 188 still applies. More recently, however, in the context of the parliamentary elections, another Islamist Shia party, al-Fadhila, reiterated its demands to introduce a PSL inspired exclusively by Jaafari jurisprudence.

Since its adoption in 1959, Law 188 has been one of the most progressive women's rights codes in the region. It was achieved thanks to the activism of Iraqi feminists, notably those of the League of Iraqi Feminists (al-Rabitah).

Nazihay al-Dulaymi, an emblematic figure in that organisation, communist agitator and the first Arab female minister, was involved in drafting the law.

The PSL accords partial equality in inheritance, which was, and remains, unheard of for a code devised by Sunni and Shia ulemas alongside state authorities.

Since its adoption in 1959, Law 188 has been one of the most progressive women's rights codes in the region

The first Iraqi Republic, led by Abdel Karin Kassem, emerged in a context in which the dominant political culture was left wing anti-imperialism, notably that of the Iraqi Communist Party, in which women's organisations were active. The current challenges to the PSL point to a rupture with that unifying heritage, born from the fight against British imperialism.

'Robbed by criminals in the name of religion'

Women's rights activists in Iraq, including the Iraqi Women Network, the Iraqi Women Journalists Forum and the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, have denounced the attempt by conservative political parties representing specific religious communities to challenge the PSL.

The activists argue that, while imperfect - it was already watered down by Saddam Hussein's regime during the 1990s - the law is important for preserving equality for Iraqis in matters of personal rights, notably by allowing cross-denominational marriage.

It allows for a relatively egalitarian reading of women's rights regarding divorce and the age of marriage, and restricts polygamy. The average Iraqi citizen, as well as the Shia clergy, is also opposed to a religious challenge to the PSL.

Many of Iraq's women's rights campaigners were part of the popular movement against the post-invasion regime launched by civil society organisations in 2015. Beginning in Tahrir Square in Baghdad and spreading through the country, the movement questioned the ethnic and denominational basis of the political system imposed by the Americans in 2003.

It denounced the sectarianism, nepotism and institutional corruption of the new regime. Using the slogan "bis mil din Baguna al-haramyah" ("we are being robbed by criminals in the name of religion"), civil society activists denounced the cynical use of religion by the ruling elites, as well as their incompetence in providing the Iraqi people with the basic essentials of security, clean drinking water, electricity and a resolution to the housing and unemployment crises.

Women's rights activists in Iraq hope to gain more rights for women, not a rolling back of existing legislation. They insist on the necessity of civil struggle, linking their fight for equality with that of the fight for a civil state (dawla madaniyya).

For them, the need for gender equality is part and parcel of the need for equality for all citizens, Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian.

Dr Zahra Ali is a sociologist whose research explores issues of women and gender in relation to Islam and the Middle East. She is currently a Teaching Fellow at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS, London. 

This article is an edited translation of an article originally published by our partners Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.