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
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,
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
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
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)