Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Freedom on the March, But Not for Women

We all know that Saddam Hussein was no prize -- and if you want the official document on that, contact the Republican National Committee. He ran a brutal dictatorship, no dissent tolerated, fed people through plastic shredders, etc. But one thing he was not was an Islamic fundamentalist. Iraq under Hussein was a secular society with guarantees of equal rights for women in education, employment, and family life. The contrast to the status of women in other Arab/Muslim countries was quite stark.

But that was then. Now, freedom is on the march; and Iraqi women may have to prepare themselves to live under strict Islamic shariah law.

A working draft of Iraq's new constitution would cede a strong role to Islamic law and could sharply curb women's rights, particularly in personal matters like divorce and family inheritance.

A banner saying "Stop the violence against Iraqi women" was carried at a Baghdad rally over constitutional issues as they affect women's rights.

The document's writers are also debating whether to drop or phase out a measure enshrined in the interim constitution, co-written last year by the Americans, requiring that women make up at least a quarter of the parliament.

The draft of a chapter of the new constitution obtained by The New York Times on Tuesday guarantees equal rights for women as long as those rights do not "violate Shariah," or Koranic law.

The Americans and secular Iraqis banished such explicit references to religious law from the interim constitution adopted early last year.

The draft chapter, circulated discreetly in recent days, has ignited outrage among women's groups, which held a protest on Tuesday morning in downtown Baghdad at the square where a statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down by American marines in April 2003.

One of the critical passages is in Article 14 of the chapter, a sweeping measure that would require court cases dealing with matters like marriage, divorce and inheritance to be judged according to the law practiced by the family's sect or religion.

Under that measure, Shiite women in Iraq, no matter what their age, generally could not marry without their families' permission. Under some interpretations of Shariah, men could attain a divorce simply by stating their intention three times in their wives' presence.

Article 14 would replace a body of Iraqi law that has for decades been considered one of the most progressive in the Middle East in protecting the rights of women, giving them the freedom to choose a husband and requiring divorce cases to be decided by a judge.

If adopted, the shift away from the more secular and egalitarian provisions of the interim constitution would be a major victory for Shiite clerics and religious politicians, who chafed at the Americans' insistence that Islam be designated in the interim constitution as just "a source" of legislation. Several writers of the new constitution say they intend, at the very least, to designate Islam as "a main source" of legislation.

So the United States overthrew a brutal secular dictatorship and paved the way for a brutal Islamic dictatorship. Well done, George W.!

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