When Iraqis head to the polls on April 30, they will have the option of voting for a party that endorses a proposed new law that allows marital rape and makes it legal for girls as young as 9 to marry.
The Jaafari Personal Status Law, which would affect only Iraq's majority Shiite population, was already approved by Iraq’s Council of Ministers in February and is slated for a vote after a new parliament is elected, the Washington Post reports.
The bill was first introduced to the council by the Iraqi Justice Minister, who is a member of the Islamist Fadila party and reportedly an ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who currently seeks reelection.
"This is an attempt by Fadila to show Iraqis that they represent the Shia and want to make their identity clear before the election,” professor Hassan al-Shimari, a political analyst at Baghdad University, told The Guardian. “Everything is changing on a daily basis, and the division between the Shia themselves keeps being redefined."
The proposed law does not explicitly set forth an age limit for marriage but designates 9 as the age by which a child can get divorced (implying that a child can be married before then). It also legalizes marital rape, bans Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women, gives husbands full guardianship over their wives and prevents women from leaving the house without their husband’s consent, Human Rights Watch notes.
Though Iraq's current law states the legal age for marriage is 18, roughly 22 percent of Iraqi women were married before age 18 in 2012, according to Iraq’s Ministry of Planning.
Critics of the new bill say it demonstrates just how far party leaders are willing to go to lock in the country’s conservative Shiite vote ahead of the elections.
“It’s a completely shameless political stunt,” Haider Ala Hamoudi, associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who writes about Iraqi, Middle Eastern and Islamic law, told Reuters.
The hotly contested draft law is deeply dividing the nation and embroiling human rights activists around the world.
"That law represents a crime against humanity and childhood," prominent Iraqi human rights activist Hana Adwar told The Associated Press in March. "Married underage girls are subjected to physical and psychological suffering."
"Iraq is in conflict and undergoing a breakdown of the rule of law," Basma al-Khateeb, a women's rights activist, told Human Rights Watch. "The passage of the Jaafari law sets the ground for legalized inequality."
Safia al-Suhail, one of Iraqi’s 82 female parliament members, told the Guardian that if the law is approved, it would be a major setback for women and for the country. However, she doesn’t anticipate it will get signed into law.
"This law means humiliation for women and for Iraqis in general. It is a disaster not just for women but for children," al-Suhail said. "These children shouldn't be exposed to such an ugly situation. It shows that we are going backwards. I hope [the senior Iraqi Shia cleric] Ali al-Sistani will strongly react to it if it is ever taken to the parliament."