Iraq: Uneven voter turnout elects women who push sharia law while anti-woman violence rages

Friday, April 1, 2005

The Shi'a cleric-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), holds a majority in the new parliament, and asserts that sharia is "non-negotiable".

Half of those who won seats reserved for women in the new National Assembly of Iraq are members of a coalition dominated by Shi'a religious parties, and they say they want Islamic sharia-based laws with legal differences in treatment for the sexes, and which permit a certain level of domestic violence.

Says Nada al-Bayiati, of the Women's Organisation for Freedom in Iraq, "It's weakening our position. How can you argue for women's rights when the women are undermining you?"

Eighty-nine in all, women make up one-third of the current parliament.

United Iraqi Alliance pushes for sharia

The Shi'a cleric-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), holds the majority of seats in the National Assembly since the recent election, and asserts that sharia is "non-negotiable".

"If you say to a man he cannot use force against a woman, you are asking the impossible," pediatrician turned politician, Jenan Al-Ubaedey of the UIA, told The Times.

"So we say a husband can beat his wife, but he cannot leave a mark. If he does that, he will be punished."

"If you don’t allow your husband to take another wife, he'd have an affair anyway [...] I'd rather know my husband has another wife that I know about."

Under a proposed law, men would be allowed up to four wives, regardless of the desires of the first wife, while women may have only one husband.

And if two other laws currently slated for debate go through, women will only be eligible for half the inheritance given to men, and denied custody of children over the age of 2 in the event of divorce.

Skewed vote, with little choice on women's rights

Legitimacy of the election, and the Assembly it elected, has been questioned.

Forty Sunni groups via the Muslim Scholars Association, had called for boycotting to protest the U.S.-led occupation, while Shi'a on the other hand vigorously promoted voting in the election, influencing not only voter turnout, but also what candidates were on offer.

And over 40% of Iraq's population live in mostly-Sunni governates of Baghdad, Al Anbar, Ninawa and Salah ad Din, where entrenched violence was significant-enough to dissuade willing voters.

Turnout in these four governates ranged from a mere 2%, in Al Anbar, to a high of only 51%, in Baghdad. Comparatively, in the nine more peaceful, mainly-Shi'a regions in the South, turnouts averaged 71%; and for the three Kurdish regions in the North, the average was 85%. [1]

Final official figures of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI), reveal that overall, 58% of registered voters actually voted in the 2005 election — however many who were eligible did not register including three quarters of expatriates.

One woman who abstained, Houzan Mahmoud, a UK based spokesperson for The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, did so not because of a clerical command or to protest the occupation. In a published statement she says that violence that has erupted against women since the invasion, and that policies do not differ significantly between candidates, when it comes to women's rights.

"If Iraqi women take part in Sunday's poll, who are they to vote for? Women's rights are ignored by most of the groupings on offer," she writes.

"In reality, these elections are, for Iraq's women, little more than a cruel joke. Amid the suicide attacks, kidnappings and US-led military assaults of the 20-odd months since Saddam's fall, the little-reported phenomenon is the sharp increase in the persecution of Iraqi women. Women are the new victims of Islamic groups intent on restoring a medieval barbarity and of a political establishment that cares little for women's empowerment.

"Having for years enjoyed greater rights than other women in the Middle East, women in Iraq are now losing even their basic freedoms. The right to choose their clothes, the right to love or marry whom they want. Of course women suffered under Saddam. I fled his cruel regime. I personally witnessed much brutality, but the subjugation of women was never a goal of the Baath party."

However, according to the US State Department's Fact Sheet Iraqi Women Under Saddam's Regime: A Population Silenced, Iraqi women in fact endured significant political repression under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi government and its representitives are claimed to have used beheading, rape, torture, and murder as political tools against certain women such as political dissidents or those whom the government declared to be prostitutes, in order to maintain their party's hold on power.

Some of these kinds of violence continue to be perpetrated by certain individuals and groups in the new Iraq. Mahmoud continued, "In the last six months at least eight women have been killed in Mosul alone - all apparently by Islamic groups clamping down on female independence. Among these, a professor from the city's law school was shot and beheaded, a vet was killed on her way to work, and a pharmacist from the Alkhansah hospital was shot dead on her doorstep."

Move to sharia started before election

But the move to sharia law actually came before the election. In January 2004, the Iraqi Women's League (IWL) expressed horror at the interim Shi'a dominated Iraqi Governing Council's Decision 137, which they explain replaced Iraqi civil law concerning family law, with sharia law.

"Decision 137 establishes sectarianism and gives formal power to informal, unaccountable and self appointed religious 'leaders'," the IWL statement said.

"The Iraqi family law (otherwise known as the Personal Status Law) is the achievement of the struggle of the Iraqi people for much of the past century not a law written by Saddam Hussein."

After protest by IWL and others, and appeal to former U.S. administrator Paul Bremer, the Decision was anulled.

Changes erode hard-won equality for women

Iraq! What About Iraqi Women?, an essay by Bhaskar Dasgupta, tells that Iraqi women were winning rights as early as the 1920s and 30s, which improved their status. By the time of the overthrow of Hussein, they had formal equality under law, including not only the right to vote and freedom from wearing of veils, but the right to work with equal pay, paid maternity leave, higher education, extensive medical coverage, and eligibility for political office or voluntary military service, among other rights.

According to Dasgupta, these rights made Iraq a leader in equality of the sexes in the Middle East for the better part of last century, although a number of studies reveal horrific abuses of both women and men, under Hussein's regime, and Hussein enabled laws allowing men to kill their wives in certain situations (see Wikipedia article Honor killing for background on the practice).

The first Gulf War in 1991, and ensuing sanctions, made economic conditions in Iraq difficult, and literacy and employment rates of women began falling.

Now the majority party in the only internationally recognised parliament of Iraq wants to reaffirm the interim Iraqi Governing Council's repeal of the Personal Status Law, and its replacement with laws based on sharia, a doctrine which in some countries sees women stoned to death as punishment for engaging in extra-marital love affairs.

Random and pernicious violence against women sanctioned by some Islamists

The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq in its latest newsletter, Equal Rights Now, alleges widespread violence against women since the U.S.-led invasion. The violence has been facilitated by the general lack of order, and includes documented cases coming from U.S. troops, as well as locals.

"Violence against Iraqi women in general and in the city of Mosul in particular continues. Groups of political Islamists, in collaboration with remnants of the Ba'ath Party, have launched a campaign of terror and killing against women for no reason other than that we are women," reads one report.

The report continues to detail killings of women attributed to Islamist gangs, who "have sanctioned the raping of 'quislings' and 'infidels' because they claim those women's souls, property and bodies are fair game for all so-called freedom fighters".

Many other such reports exist, despite a strong taboo against discussion of sexual abuse, which could be expected to result in significant under-reporting of these cases. However, many of the allegations have not had the degree of media coverage that the notorious abuse cases of Abu Ghraib Prison of 2003-04 received.

Puppet politicians

According to Dr Udaedey, many of the women legislators are in fact puppets. "It's true that many of them — maybe a third — have just been put there by the men. They are not aware and don't come to meetings, so they don't know what's going on," she told The Times. "About 10 per cent of them are learning, but the others don’t really care."

However, Dr. Udaedey plans to remained focused on protecting the role of Iraqi women as shar'ia law seems destined to become a guiding influence on Iraq's new constitution. According to her interview in the Christian Science Monitor, "She plans to encourage women to wear the hijab and focus on nurturing their families. At the same time, she says, she will fight for salary equity, paid maternity leave, and reduced work hours for pregnant women."

Elected Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, in an interview with Der Spiegel, also asserts that women will not be forgotten in the new Iraq. He says that sharia law will remain "only as one of several sources of jurisprudence" and that women will "Never [be required to wear veils in the new Iraq]. They will be free to choose for themselves."