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Zainab Salbi Headshot

Women's Rights and Islamic Law in the New Iraq Constitution

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The liberation of Iraq from Saddam Hussein should not mean the restriction of rights for women. Unfortunately, this might be the case if the reports of the new Iraq Constitution allow broad interpretations of Islam to govern women’s lives.

From my experience in Iraq and conversations with Iraqi women from all socio-economic backgrounds, I know their identity is strongly linked to religion. I also know that the role of Islam in the Constitution is hotly debated. The wide range of diverse opinions has not been aired publicly because of security risks. Yet, an issue as critical as the role of Islam should not be negotiated behind closed doors without public engagement or input.

A handful of secularists are daring to call for a complete separation of religion and state. On the other end of the spectrum, many are arguing for a traditional interpretation of Islamic law and its influence in the Constitution. Still others want a middle ground.

The key questions today are: first, how will Shari’a be interpreted and, second, how will Iraqis close loopholes that allow fundamentalists use their interpretations to curb women’s rights.

Leaving interpretation of these rights, which fall under the jurisdiction of civil or family law, up to religious authorities could be devastating. At stake are issues that affect women most directly, such as the right to custody of children, the right to inheritance and the right to divorce on the same grounds as men.

The new Constitution should contain non-negotiables that allow women’s equal social, political and economic participation in the future of Iraq. The Constitution should support the rights of women at all levels of Iraqi society and uphold international human rights standards.

Everyone realizes this is an opportunity of a lifetime in Iraq’s history. Iraqi women are clear about the need to protect their rights, regardless of their secular or religious convictions. In a survey conducted by Women for Women International in late 2004, 94% of the women in Iraq’s three biggest provinces said they want to protect their legal rights in the new Constitution, whether or not the framework is religious or secular.

It is important to note that the words “secular” and “religious” are viewed and interpreted differently in Iraq than here. For many Iraqis, the Arabic translation of “secular” is atheism, a concept that is not culturally acceptable. Even Saddam Hussein’s self-proclaimed liberal laws affecting women were based upon concepts of Islamic law, known as Shari’a.

While much of the consternation in the United States is about Shari’a in Iraq, it is important to remember that Islam is not inherently bad for women’s rights, just as secular law is not automatically good. It is possible to use an Islamic framework to secure women’s rights, as other countries like Morocco and Malaysia have.

Experts from those countries met with Iraq’s Constitutional Committee members and Iraqi women and men leaders at a conference in the safety of Jordan in June. After hours of passionate and sometimes heated discussions about the role of Islam in the new Constitution, the Iraqi participants agreed that the Constitution should have supremacy over local and religious laws.

The Iraqis also recommended that women and men be given the same rights, protections and responsibilities. While everyone agreed that the Constitution should abide by international conventions previously signed by Iraq, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, conference participants also insisted on maintaining a quota for women’s seats in the government and increasing it to 40%, as inspired by international conventions, to replace the 25% quota that was granted for them in the Transitional Administrative Law, which currently governs Iraq.

In the last 13 years, I have worked exclusively with women in post-conflict regions, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Afghanistan, from Colombia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The time after conflict provides women with a window of opportunity to redress past inequities and expand women’s rights. I have concluded that to build stronger nations you need to build stronger women, from the grassroots up. Countries overcoming war and conflict have shown that when women are protected and engaged as full citizens in a country, the entire country fares better.

Women’s rights must not be negotiated away in the rebuilding of Iraq, and most importantly, not in the Constitution — a document that will serve as an anchor for the country’s future and set a standard in the Middle East. Ensuring women rights, within the rule of law and supported by interpretations from the Quran, the key indicator of success in establishing a free and prosperous Iraq.

The window of opportunity will quickly close for women – and for all of Iraq – unless constitution drafters agree on strengthening and protecting women’s rights. This is a major stepping stone to building a strong country. Iraq has the chance to seize the opportunity.