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June 26, 2007

Iraqi Women Resist Return to Sectarian Laws


by Ellen Massey

As Iraq struggles to define its future, there is one important group that has been largely left out of the process: women.

But they are refusing to be left behind. With little international support or media attention, a network of more than 150 women's organizations across Iraq is fighting to preserve their rights in the new constitutional revision process.

As part of a campaign to garner international support, the Iraq Women's Movement sent a letter in May to U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and another to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressing concern over the constitutional review process taking place and calling for international support for their effort to preserve women's rights in Iraqi law.

"As women face escalating violence and exclusion in Iraq, they have been marginalized in reconciliation initiatives and negotiations for government positions," the letter noted.

"Even with the shy and insignificant pressure exerted by the UN and other international donors/players on the Iraqi government and politicians to fulfill minimum obligations of Security Council Resolution 1325, the action taken has been a sequence of disappointments…."

Passed in 2000, Resolution 1325 emphasizes the importance of women's participation in conflict resolution and peace-building processes. A second resolution, 1483, applies this conviction specifically to Iraq.

More than three years ago, the United States was instrumental in overturning an amendment to the interim constitution that would have lifted protections for women and children. U.S. and international pressure, and Iraqi women who took to the streets, succeeded in defeating the provision, which was contradictory to many other parts of the constitution.

Following that triumph, women turned out in record numbers for the 2005 election. They secured 33 percent of the seats in the National Assembly but remain woefully absent from other influential branches of the government, according to a 2006 report from the Iraq Legal Development Project.

The effectiveness of previous international pressure has spurred the women's movement in Iraq to call the world's attention to this issue once again, but there has been little acknowledgment of their effort so far. The office of the UN secretary-general has released only a very general statement about the review process since the Iraqi Women's Movement sent their letter on May 21. Pelosi's office has not yet recognized the letter publicly.

Hanaa Edwar is a leader of the Iraqi Women's Movement and founder of the Iraqi al-Amal Association, a national civil society group based in Baghdad. She is campaigning against Article 41, a provision buried in the text of the draft constitution that places personal status laws under the influence of religion, sect, or belief. These are the laws that administer marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, and how religious courts settle disputes among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

But "there is no unity across sects or even within sects" on the rules that govern family and women's status, Edwar noted.

Warning that the current language could "deepen the sectarian issues in this society," Edwar added: "We feel that this is not a women's demand, it is a national demand. This is important for national security."

"National security" is a term that the U.S. Congress knows well, and the Iraqi women appealed to the issues that are keystones of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Their letter to Pelosi asks for "help in preventing Iraq from taking the identity of a religious state," and includes a reminder that, "any destabilization in the state of law, economy, and security in Iraq can reflect on the security and stability of the whole region."

Mary Trotochaud, an activist who has worked both on the ground in Iraq and with lawmakers in Washington, told IPS, "This movement originates from three generations of women who had really strong rights."

Iraq's progressive women's rights laws began when the "personal status laws" were included in the 1959 Constitution. In 1970, women were formally guaranteed equal rights and additional laws ensured their right to vote, attend school, run for office, and own property.

Iraq has also ratified a series of international treaties that guarantee equal rights for all, including the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights that protect the pluralistic nature of Iraqi society and offer unprecedented protections to women in an Arab country.

Yet Iraqi women still faced considerable historical obstacles to their political participation, including Ba'ath policies that disenfranchised them and Saddam Hussein's strengthening of Islamic and tribal traditions in an effort to consolidate power in the 1990s.

"These are human rights issues that we're talking about that we should be advocating all the time in all countries," Trotochaud said. "We shouldn't be shy about saying that."

The most recent campaign to preserve these rights began in 2003 in the wake of Hussein's fall and the dissolution of Iraq's existing legal, political, and economic systems. Women's groups began springing up around the country and organizing to advocate for their rights and participation in the new constitution and government.

The network of groups held regional and national meetings and met with parliamentarians and officials across sect and party lines. "When the time for constitutional conventions came, women were already organized," said Trotochaud, who was living in Iraq at the time.

However, the spiraling violence has taken its toll on the campaign. "The sectarian divide has gotten big enough that people who have worked together in the past don't work together now," she added.

The constitutional review process has labored on for the past six months with few signs of progress. Debate remains bogged down in issues like the disposition of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in the northern, Kurdish-dominated region; the distribution of national wealth; and de-Ba'athification.

Article 41, which places family law under religious and tribal traditions, is still in the drafts of the constitution, and women's rights in the process remain a backstage issue.

Edwar said that the Constitutional Review Committee has been granted another month to complete its work. Refusing to be discouraged by the lack of international attention, she looks at the delay as an opportunity to advance the movement's goals of ensuring that women's rights and family law will be included in her country's new constitution and that civil society will be a part of the process.

The Iraqi Women's Movement has submitted its own language to the review committee for consideration to replace the objectionable Article 41. It says that, "The Iraqi state should ensure that personal status laws should be organized according to law." Edwar said they were often met with support for the Movement's appeal but that "women's issues are one of the compromise issues among politicians."

There is likely little that will stop the political maneuvering in the run-up to the referendum on the new constitution. But Edwar made clear that the Iraqi Women's Movement will continue its campaign to preserve human rights until the very last moment and she represents a political force that will keep women's rights on the political agenda for years to come.

As stated in their letter to Pelosi, "Our hopes in our nation are big, but our trust in our women's resilience has no boundaries."

(Inter Press Service)

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Ellen Massey writes for Inter Press Service.

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