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January 15, 2004

Mass Demonstrations by Women, Others, Against Sudden Islamization of Iraqi Law


by Juan Cole

The Baghdad/London daily az-Zaman reports that there were widespread demonstrations on Tuesday by women against the order decreeing abolition of Iraq's uniform civil codes in favor of religious law, which they say "repeals women's rights" in Iraq. This story appears to have been completely missed so far by the Western news media, which is a great shame. Women are important, too, guys.

Women activists representing 80 women's organizations (including the female Interim Minister of Public Works!) gathered at Firdaws Square in downtown Baghdad to protest the IGC decree, issued three days ago. Minister of Public Works Nasreen Barwari complained to az-Zaman about the lack of "transparency" and of "democratic consultation" in the promulgation of the decree by the IGC. Protesters carried placards with phrases like "No to discrimination, No to differentiating women and men in our New Iraq." and "We reject Decree 137, which sanctifies religious communalism." Activist Zakiyah Khalifah complained that the law would weaken Iraqi families.

US observers, including US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have continually worried in public about Iraq becoming a theocracy, and have rejected that option. But the American-appointed Interim Governing Council has suddenly taken Iraq in a theocratic direction that has important implications for women's rights. As reported here earlier, the IGC took a decision recently to abolish Iraq's civil personal status law, which was uniform for all Iraqis under the Baath. In its place, the IGC called for religious law to govern personal status, to be administered by the clerics of each of Iraq's major religious communities for members of their religion. Thus, Shiites would be under Shiite law and Chaldeans under Catholic canon law for these purposes.

The IGC has ceded to the religious codes jurisdiction over marriage, engagement, suitability to marry, the marriage contract, proof of marriage, dowry, financial support, divorce, the 3-month "severance payments" owed to divorced wives in lieu of alimony, inheritance, and all other personal status matters.

For the vast majority of women who are Muslim, the implementation of `iddah or the obligation of a man to support a woman for 3 months after he divorces her (a term long enough to see whether she is pregnant with his child) has the effect of abolishing the divorced woman's right to alimony. This abrogation of alimony was effected for Muslims in India in the mid-1980s with the Shah Banou case, as the Congress Party's sop to Indian Muslim fundamentalists. The particular form of Islamic law that the IGC seems to envisage operating would also give men the right of unilateral divorce over their wives, gives men the right to take second, third and fourth wives, and gives girls half as much inheritance from the father's estate as boys.

Since the Interim Governing Council was appointed directly by the United States, it is in effect an organ of the Occupation Authority. As such, it is a contravention of the 1907 Hague Regulations for it to change civil law in an occupied territory. The US appointed a number of clerics and leaders of religious parties to the IGC, almost ensuring that this sort of thing would happen.

The US is now in the position of imposing on the Iraqi public, including the 50% who are women, a theocratic code of personal status. The question is whether this step is just the first in the road to an Iraqi theocracy.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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