BAGHDAD — Once one of the best countries for women’s rights in the Middle East, Iraq has now become a place where women fear for their lives in an increasingly fundamentalist environment.
Prior to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iraqi women enjoyed rights under the Personal Status Law since Jul. 14, 1958, the day Iraqis overthrew the British-installed monarchy.
Under this law they were able to settle civil suits in courts, unfettered by religious influences. Iraqi women had many of the rights enjoyed by women in western countries.
The end of monarchy brought a regime in which women began to work as professors, doctors and other professionals. They took government and ministerial positions and enjoyed growing rights even through the dictatorial reign of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party.
“Our rights had been hard to obtain in a country with a tradition of firm male control,” Dr. Iman Robeii, professor of psychology from Fallujah told IPS in Baghdad. Iraqi women have traditionally done all the housework, and assisted children with school work, she said. On top of that about 30 percent of women had been engaged in social activities.
“But a tragic collapse took place after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the so-called Islamists seized power to place new obstacles in the way of women’s march towards improvement,” she said.
A significant event was the Dec. 29, 2003 decision by the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) to pass a bill which almost cancelled the Personal Status Law, 45 years after it had been passed.
Under Resolution 137 Iraqi women would rely on religious institutions for personal matters such as marriage and divorce, as opposed to recourse to civilian courts that they could access before the invasion.
Women across Iraq saw the IGC move as one of the first hazardous steps towards implementation of a fundamentalist Islamic law. The bill did not pass, but the slide into Sharia (Islamic law) had already taken root through much of Shia-dominated southern Iraq and also some Sunni-dominated areas of central Iraq.
Resolution 137 was defeated in March 2004. A new Iraqi constitution has been introduced, but the adoption of the constitution has not helped protect women’s rights.
Yanar Mohammed, one of Iraq’s staunchest women’s rights advocates, believes the constitution neither protects women nor ensures their basic rights. She blames the United States for abdicating its responsibility to help develop a pluralistic democracy in Iraq.
“The U.S. occupation has decided to let go of women’s rights,” Mohammed told reporters. “Political Islamic groups have taken southern Iraq, are fully in power there, and are using the financial support of Iran to recruit troops and allies. The financial and political support from Iran is why the Iraqis in the south accept this, not because the Iraqi people want Islamic law.”
Mohammed believes the drafting of the Iraqi constitution was “not for the interest of the Iraqi people” and instead was based on concessions to ethnic and sectarian groups.
“The Kurds want Kirkuk (an oil-rich city they consider the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), and the Shias want the Islamic Republic of Iraq, just like Iran’s,” she said. “The genie is out of the bottle in terms of political Islam (by Shias) and the resistance (by Sunnis). America will tolerate any conclusion so they can leave, even if it means destroying women’s rights and civil liberties.They have left us a regime like the Taliban.”
A woman judge told IPS that she and her female colleagues could not go to work any more because the current system does not allow for a female judge.
Iraqi NGO activists have also criticised the new constitution for depriving women of leadership posts in the country. “The constitution mentions some rights for women, but those in power laugh when they are asked to put it to practice,” she said. Like the woman judge, she too did not want to be named.
The key element in the Iraqi constitution that is dangerous for women’s rights is Article 2 which states “Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation.” Subheading A under Article 2 states that “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.”
Under Article 2 the interpretation of women’s rights is left to religious leaders, and it provides for implementation of Sharia law which can turn the clock back on women’s rights in Iraq.
The social environment in Iraq has become acutely difficult for women already. Many women now fear leaving their homes.
“I try to avoid leaving my home, and when I do, I always cover my face,” Suthir Ayad told IPS at her house in Baghdad. “Several of my friends have been threatened or beaten by these Shia militias who insist we stay home and never show our faces.”
In southern Iraq, the situation seems even worse.
“My cousin in Basra was beaten savagely by some of the Mehdi Army (the militia of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr) because she tried to attend university,” said a woman who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Now she never leaves her home unless fully covered, and then only to shop for food.”