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Sun 14 Aug 2005 04:00 AM

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Wronging Iraq’s rights

With Iraq’s new constitution threatening to strip women of their equality, the country’s females protest. Rhys Jones reports.

Wronging Iraq’s rights|~|wronging-Iraq-200.jpg|~|Solidarity: Over 90% of all Iraqi wormen want equality and to have their rights protected by laws, according to a survey conducted by an international non-governmental organisation.|~|
Every day in Iraq, women are beaten, raped, abducted and murdered, while millions more live in poverty and fear. These women pray for a constitution that upholds their rights — one that offers democracy, justice and peace. It is not yet clear whether the August 15 deadline for the completion of Iraq’s new draft constitution will be met. However, if it is, it seems increasingly likely to mean a huge erosion of human rights for Iraq’s 13 million women.

Iraq has been operating under a secular 1959 civil status law that treats every person according to the sect to which he or she belongs. However, the new draft constitution (written by a committee of 46 men and nine women) now states that Shari’a law will apply in preference to international law. Shari’a law decrees that ‘personal status’ (family law relating to marriage, divorce, custody, widowhood and inheritance) is to be determined according to the different religious sects.

If adopted, campaigner say the proposed constitution under Shari’a law would effectively strip women of any notion of equality before the law. This particular interpretation of the Qur’an would legalise polygamy; divorce by ‘talaq’ (to divorce his wife a husband need only say three times “I divorce you”); honour killings; stoning and public beheadings of women for alleged adultery.

Provisions to this effect (in the form of rule 137) were successfully excluded from the interim TAL (Transitional Administrative Law) constitution in March 2004, but have now been incorporated into the final draft of the new constitution.

An excerpt from the latest draft (July 20) of Article Eight on ‘Duties of Women: Equality with Men’ reads: “The state shall provide for the harmonisation of the duties of the women towards her family and their work in society. [It shall provide] for their equality with men in all fields without disturbing the provisions of the Islamic Shari’a.”

Campaigners say the draft, as it stands today, focuses on the “duties”, rather than the “rights” of women — a clear departure from principles of equality and non-discrimination which Iraq has agreed by its ratification of such international United Nations (UN) conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As a result, a fortnight ago thousands of Iraqi women took to the streets — at considerable risk to themselves — to protest at its provisions.

Women’s rights activists such as Yanar Mohammed, the head of the Women’s Freedom in Iraq movement claim the new draft constitution would deprive women of their rights and render them subservient to interpretations of Islamic law. She believes it could well lead to the ‘Talibanisation’ of Iraq and an escalation of violence towards women who rebel.

Extremists and insurgents have already used violence and rape to force women to wear the veil. Now a law is set to be passed that will ban widows from working for three months following the deaths of their husbands.

“We reject the changes prepared on the 1959 law because some Islamic parties want to kidnap the rights of women in Iraq,” says Mohammed. “We reject such attempts because women should be full citizens with full rights, not semi-human beings,” adding that religious groups are attempting to transform Iraqi women into “second-class citizens”.

In spite of this, Mariam Al Rayyes, a Shiite member, says Islam would be the state religion and merely a “main source” for the legislation within the constitution.

“It gives women all rights and freedoms as long as they don’t contradict with our values,” Al Rayyes says. “Concerning marriage, inheritance and divorce, this is civil status law. That should not contradict with religious values,” she explains, adding that during the next two four-year parliamentary terms, women will make up at least 25% of the membership.

In truth, though, the 25% quota reserved for women in decision-making bodies, including the national assembly, which was agreed in 2003-4 under the auspices of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was the UK’s ambassador to the UN, has now been amended. This quota will only operate for the first two elections after the constitution is adopted, and not later. This change is in direct contravention of the TAL and will have the effect of excluding women from equal participation in governance.

However, as a result of the unparalleled violence of the past 30 years in Iraq, the fact remains that the majority of the population of the war-torn country is female. Women therefore have a crucial role to play in post-conflict reconstruction and many women’s rights campaigners see it as vital that their rights are protected in accordance with the standards of international laws. Security Council resolution 1325 (signed by Iraq) for instance, requires that women are treated equally and are enabled to participate fully and proportionately in decision-making.

Furthermore, a survey conducted a few weeks ago by an international non-governmental organisation found that over 90% of all Iraqi women interviewed wished for equality and to have their rights protected by law.

As such, the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) — part of the Bar Council (the professional body representing more than 10,000 barristers in the UK), which is an independent group of lawyers concerned to see the rule of law and human rights upheld throughout the world, wants to see action taken.

A letter obtained by Arabian Business, which was sent to Jack Straw, the UK’s foreign secretary by Peter Carter QC, the chairman of the BHRC last month, reads: “We are writing to you urgently to express our grave concern at recent developments with regard to the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution, and in particular at the threatened erosion of Iraqi women’s human rights — rights they have enjoyed, under a secular state, since 1959.”

In the letter Carter goes on to ask Straw to use his “influence and power to postpone the date for delivery of the [new Iraq] constitution until it properly reflects respects for internationally endorsed human rights — of men and women, and boys and girls, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, age, or marital status”.

Carter claims Iraq’s women have led, in the region, in all areas of social, public, cultural and economic life, and were role models for women in neighbouring countries for nearly half a century. He also explains how dire he feels the repercussions of the draft constitution could be, if it is adopted.

“You will be only too well aware of how repressive and oppressive to women interpretations of Shari’a law can be. We can see the consequences for women in Iran today, and in Afghanistan under the Taliban,” he writes.

“We ask you, on behalf of the BHRC, not only as the foreign secretary of a government that took us into war on the promise that it was the only means left to secure democracy in Iraq, but as a fellow member of the Bar, to use all the influence you can — and do have influence with the US — to postpone the delivery of the draft constitution so that more time can be given to ensure that it represents the interests of all the people of Iraq — women as well as men — and the direction of the country will be firmly built on a road paved with the fundamental blocks of international human rights legislation.”

Carter told Arabian Business that the BHRC is “very concerned that the rush to achieve a constitution for Iraq is at the expense of the very important rights of equality for women”, adding that its adoption would “be in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325” and inconsistent with the claims of the occupying forces that human rights and the restoration of democracy are their principal concerns.

“For many years, both before and after the fall of Saddam, women have played a critical role in defending civil rights. Historically, Iraq has an admirable record of providing women with opportunities equal (or almost equal) to those of men. The proposed constitution represents an unacceptable failure to protect half the population,” he concludes.

In the hope of reaching agreement on a new constitution for the war-torn country (in whatever form) Iraqi leaders met last week in a bid to resolve outstanding disputes over the proposed draft. The meeting, which was hosted by Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president, was the first in a series designed to resolve serious differences, including the role of Islam in the state and the powers of central government.

Given that the constitution must be presented and approved by parliament by August 15, Iraqi leaders hoped to reach agreement on issues that have remained unresolved since the parliamentary committee which was charged with writing the draft first convened nearly three months ago. If they fail, Iraq’s interim constitution, the TAL, approved by the US-appointed Iraq Governing Council over a year ago, would mandate the dissolution of the government.

One dispute, over the role of Islam, pits the Kurds and other secular-leaning groups against a Shia political bloc dominated by Islamist parties. The Kurds favour the TAL’s current wording that Islam should be “a source” of legislation, and that no law should contradict either Islamic tenets or the principles of democracy or human rights.

This is language, which until recently, most Shia politicians had said that they could accept. However, many Shia now insist that Islam be designated “the main source” of legislation.

The second main point of contention, over the nature of Iraqi federalism, primarily pits Shia against the constitutional committee’s Sunni Arab contingent. A third key divide over Iraq’s ethnic identity pits Sunnis against Kurds. Sunni political parties have a strong tradition of pan-Arabism, and many insist that the country be considered a part of the ‘Arab nation’.

These developments have caused deep dismay among women’s organisations across Iraq, whether Kurds, Sunnis or Shias. Iraqi women have campaigned and lobbied vigorously over the past few months, often risking great personal danger — several politically active women have been assassinated, abducted, raped or threatened — for the new constitution to guarantee women’s rights and abide by international treaties.

At a meeting in Jordan only four weeks ago, at an undisclosed location for reasons of security, men and women from the Constitutional Drafting Committee and the Transitional Assembly vigorously discussed the issue of women’s rights. But already it seemed clear that it would be impossible to arrive at any consensus by the August 15 deadline, whether about women’s rights, or about federalism, the place of international conventions, or such basic principles as the right to life.

The majority of participants voted for a postponement of six months. But the Bush administration would clearly like to see all the deadlines, for the constitution, referendum and next election, met so that it can withdraw US troops from Iraq.

However, delivering a constitution that breaches all international laws on human rights and equality, and is so totally discriminatory of, and unacceptable to, the vast majority of Iraqi women, is, according Yanar Mohammed, “not acceptable in the name of democracy”.


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