Iraqi women demonstrate for rights

Aug 1, 2005

July 19 about 200 Iraqi women and a few men took to the streets in Baghdad to protest parts of a draft of the new constitution, scheduled to be completed mid-August. The protesters were from women's rights groups and included secular Iraqi women politicians.

The draft of the entire constitution is religious and sect-based. It gives lip service to equal rights for women – but only as long as those rights do not violate Shariah or the law based on the Koran. If these changes are implemented, it would severely set women backwards in important ways.

The women are outraged by Article 14, which includes a provision that women, regardless of age, would need their family's permission to marry. Under Shariah, a man could get a divorce just by expressing his wish three times in front of his wife. Women would also be denied inheritance rights.

Article 14 would replace a personal status law enacted in 1959 and continued up until the U.S. took over. It is one of the more progressive laws in the Middle East in acknowledging women's rights. It gives women the right to choose a husband and requires divorce cases to be decided by a judge. Article 14 would chuck that body of law and require cases dealing with marriage, divorce and inheritance to be judged according to law practiced by the family's sect or religion.

The draft appears to deepen the divide between Sunnis and Shiites, without acknowledging legal rights for mixed marriages. Women also protested a proposal to phase out a current measure requiring that one-out-of-four parliamentary seats go to women.

The women made sure their small protest was visible and noisy. They chose to demonstrate in the square in downtown Baghdad where U.S. troops pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. On a very hot day, they handed out leaflets and waved banners in the midst of heavy traffic. One banner said, "Stop the violence against Iraqi women."This was not the first such protest. A few months after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Iraqi women took to the streets when religious Shiite politicians tried to abolish the 1959 law. Their protest was effective.

Of course, no constitution in itself is ever a guarantee of rights. Over the decades in Iraq, it was mostly middle class, educated women who benefitted from these rights. Poor women have often been subjected to barbaric conditions.

Nor will the U.S. ambassador to Iraq defend women, even if he criticizes some of these new provisions. He pretends to defend "democracy," meaning he would leave things as they are now – with a constitution that is ambiguous and women's rights attacked in daily life.

Nevertheless, considering the reactionary climate in Iraq – with the U.S. military occupation on the one hand and the thrust towards religious fundamentalism on the other – it is significant that even a small group of women are willing to stand up and publicly demand elementary rights for all women.