WASHINGTON: Iraqi women, who were among the most liberated in the Arab world under the country’s legal system, are seeing their rights stripped away by the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council (GC), according to 44 US lawmakers who are calling on President George W. Bush to take urgent steps to address what they call a “brewing women’s rights crisis.”
In a letter sent to Bush on Monday, the lawmakers, led by Representative Carolyn Maloney, Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Darlene Hooley, complained that the GC had quietly voted to “cancel” certain laws designed to protect women and to place them under the jurisdiction of Islamic law, or Sharia.
“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,” the lawmakers wrote. The White House had no immediate comment.
The letter made reference to GC resolution 137, approved by the 25-member GC on Dec. 29, which replaces Iraq’s 1959 personal-status laws with religious laws, to be administered by the clerics from the religious group to which the parties in the dispute belong. The laws in question span a wide range of domains, from the right to education, employment and freedom of movement, to property inheritance, divorce and child custody.
The resolution must still be approved by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by Paul Bremer, in order to become legally binding. In a letter to Bremer Friday, MADRE, a New York-based international rights advocate for women, said the GC’s action lacked transparency and was taken without any public debate or open consultation with only a minority of council members present.
“In under 15 minutes of discussions, the GC 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 GC has (put) sectarianism over inclusiveness and violated core principles of democratic governance.”
Iraqi women, only three of whom serve on the GC, are also protesting the resolution, according to recent news reports.
“This will send us home and shut the door, just like what happened to women in Afghanistan,” Amira Hassan Abdullah, a Kurdish lawyer, told The Washington Post last month. “The old law wasn’t perfect, but this one would make Iraq a jungle. Iraqi women will accept it over their dead bodies.”
The council’s action, according to various reports, came at the behest of conservative Shiite members of the Council when Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), chaired it. Secular and Kurdish members of the council have since argued against the measure.
While the CPA is considered highly unlikely to ratify the resolution, there is concern Muslim conservatives could push it through the transitional government, to which sovereignty is supposed to be returned by the CPA by June 30. Shiite clerics are not only expected to increase their representation in the government, but they may be supported by conservative Sunnis, as well. Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein by US-led forces last April, religious conservatives in both Shiite and Sunni parts of the country are reported to have become increasingly prominent and influential.
“Although this law would not go into effect until after June 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 let that happen.”
The lawmakers said they were particularly angered by a column on women’s rights by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in The Washington Post Sunday. Wolfowitz is currently in Baghdad reviewing the military and political situation.
The column, titled Women in the New Iraq, argued that “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 that it poses.
“I would hope that 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 post-war 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 slippery slope that ends in a human rights crisis. The time to act is now.”
“After making tremendous strides for equality and parity in Iraqi society, women there are being forced to fight yesterday’s battle anew as some elements in their society attempt to roll back … progress,” said Johnson. “It would be 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.”
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 GC on an interim charter that reportedly includes equal rights for women and minorities, there is no guarantee that the principles enshrined in it will be incorporated in any new constitution.
In its letter, MADRE said the resolution not only threatens women’s rights, but may also worsen growing sectarian tensions in Iraq. The resolution, according to the letter to Bremer “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.”
“The decision establishes sectarianism as an organizing principle of social and political life in Iraq and will deeply damage the cause of national integration,” the letter argued. It noted as well that differences exist within the various sects regarding interpretations of Sharia and thus could invite “legal chaos.”
Zakia Ismael Hakki, a retired judge, told the Post that 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.”