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Zainab Salbi Headshot

An Update: President Obama's Speech and the Struggle of Iraqi Women Today

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In 1951, Ali Al-Wardi, one of Iraq's most respected historians and social anthropologists, wrote about the need to lift women's seclusion and the necessity of women's full inclusion in all aspects of the public life in Iraq. He argued that gender equality was one of the major prerequisites for a healthy Iraqi society that eliminates the dualism caused by the seclusion of women and systematic encouragement of segregation and separation of men and women. Nearly 60 years later, Iraq is witnessing more seclusion of women than ever, more suppression of women's rights than ever, and the near total disappearance of a female presence in the public sphere. This is a dangerous phenomenon that should not be taken lightly.

Women are a bellwether for society and no progress can be achieved in any country, let alone Iraq, if women are continually suppressed and hidden from the public sphere with little or no rights or freedoms. In my recent visit to Iraq in May of this year, I was saddened to learn the extent to which women status has detracted in the country. Legally, women's rights remained unprotected. The Family Status Law, written in 1959 and shaped by legal scholars of a similar mind to Al-Wardi, had been practically erased by the new Iraqi constitution of 2004.

Those who wrote the 1959 Family Status Law wrote about the need for a consistent, centralized law that ensured the protection of all women in Iraq as a vision for progress in the country. While the 1959 legislation and its Hussein-era amendments left much room for improvement, the Family Status Law protected Iraqi women's rights in many ways from establishing the legal marriage age at 18, to creating barriers, polygamy, specifying a woman's right to maintain her lifestyle upon her marriage, and asserting a women's right divorce her husband. The Family Status Law was written under the auspices of Islamic law with an intent to gear away from sectarian laws that suppressed women's public participation and basic human rights established in many other Muslim countries at the time.

I must admit that Women for Women International was one of the leading organizations advocating for a radical improvement of the law during the constitutional writing process of 2004. Learning from different experiences in working in conflict and post-conflict environments, we have always been well aware that war and its rebuilding process present a window of opportunity for improvements in women's access to resources and representation in the public sphere generally articulated in Family Status Law. As an organization, we made sure to introduce members of the Iraqi constitutional writing committee to those who participated in the writing of the Malaysian Family Law, Egyptian, Moroccan, South African and even post-genocide Rwandese law with the hope that cross-cultural collaboration would facilitate the protection of women's rights within an Islamic context. Little did we know that all the training and the sharing of experiences would have no impact on the writing of the new constitution; the constitutional writing committee executed a decentralized Family Law that leaves every Iraqi woman's status vulnerable to varied interpretations by men in different provinces of Iraq.

In my opinion, decentralization overlooked the historic importance of centralization of the 1959 Family Status Law, which in 2004 was erased and replaced with different versions from one province to another. This has many implications. It means that different women in Iraq have different access to their rights depending on where they are living. In the absence of a unified vision for Iraq's future and a central government with qualified lawmakers who understand how the law can learn from other Muslim countries, it means Iraqi women have been left vulnerable to the consequences of a young nation suffering from a weakened legal infrastructure and a institutionalized role for religious leaders never before realized in modern Iraqi history. Finally, according to Hana'a Edwar, a leading Iraqi women's rights activist, the new law expressed in article 41 contradicts the specification of equality for women and men in the new Iraqi constitution.

While I am not necessarily qualified to comment on the relative merits of legal decentralization, I have seen with my own eyes the consequences it has had on the women of Iraq when it allows laws to be blindly applied without consistency. Unfortunately, the protection of women's rights is rarely seen as a vital element of nation building, though women represent between 55 and 65 percent (depending on various data). I fail to see how Iraq can have a strong economy, strong democracy or strong nation overall while over half its population remains excluded from public participation without access to resources.

President Obama's speech in Cairo yesterday illustrates that it is prudent that the United States help Iraqi women in their struggle for a centralized Family Status Law that balances between respect of Islam as a religion, all the religious groups of Iraq, and women's rights as equal citizens. The connection the president made to women's rights, access to education, economic opportunity and building peace, stability, and stronger nations in the Muslim world underscores the importance of this. We cannot fail Iraqi women in this particular time in history, for they have lost too much ground over the last six years in terms of rights, mobility, access to and representation in the public sphere, employment opportunities, and personal security and stability. It is time to help Iraqi women, to support them as they move toward leadership and to enshrine their rights in the Iraqi constitution.