For Iraqi women, window of opportunity for political gains is closing

Posted in Broader Middle East , Iraq , Human Rights | 27-Feb-04 | Author: Neela Banerjee| Source: The New York Times

HILLA, Iraq Emboldened by the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women are pushing for political freedoms many of them have never enjoyed. But as they do, a rising tide of religious zeal threatens even the small victories they have won.

Ibtisam Ali and her sister, Raghad, have spearheaded a petition drive demanding a large percentage of seats for women in a new national assembly. But when Raghad, 25, tried to run for local office, the men at the candidate registration office told her that women could not be candidates.

"I was frightened of the people in my neighborhood," Raghad said. "They looked at me so strangely, like I thought I was equal to men. I'm afraid of everything, from gossip to violence. It just kills the ambitions inside."

Women, secular and religious, from all ethnic groups, are running for office and demanding a fair share of representation in a country where they make up 60 percent of the population.

Yet new religious activism in Iraq has aggravated traditional attitudes about women's roles. The 18-member committee drafting the new constitution does not include any women, according to members of the Iraqi Governing Council. The council recently passed a nonbinding resolution calling for Shariah, or Islamic law, to govern family issues, which Iraq's justice minister said would damage the rights of Iraqi women.

And on the streets, more women, even little girls, are covering their heads and bodies, largely because of a fear of harassment and violence, according to a range of secular and religious women.

Women "realize that if they don't move now, they will pay the price for years and years to come," said Manal Omar, the Iraq director for the Washington-based group Women for Women International, which helps women in countries newly emerged from war. For 35 years, Iraqi women were able to get university degrees, study overseas and hold high-level professional posts. They were discouraged from wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf. But in the 1990s, when Saddam embraced Islam as a source of credibility in the Arab world, his government clamped down on women. Although they continued to attend schools and hold jobs, they were no longer allowed to travel on their own. In general, said Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American who is a president of Women for Women International, women abandoned public life, leaving politics to men. More women started to cover themselves, although wearing hijab became the norm only after Saddam's ouster.

Many Iraqi women felt that with the arrival of the Americans, they would gain more rights. In Hilla, about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, south of Baghdad, women are pressing for those rights, with the help of some men, and battling the anger roused by their efforts.

One recent afternoon, Ibtisam Ali stood before the staff of the Human Rights Association of Babylon asking for signatures on a petition demanding that 40 percent of seats in the new national assembly be set aside for women. The signature drive has spread across the country.

Ali, a tall, eloquent woman, was reluctant to push too hard after a man told her that women did not deserve equal representation because they were not equal to men. "If, after all this, the Governing Council gives us 10 or 20 percent, that will be a blessing," she told the group. But Hafidh Mejbas, an older man who worked for the human rights association, coached her, saying: "Don't mention 10 or 20 percent all the time. Insist on the 40 percent."

Ali has been to villages and gotten signatures from women washing clothes on the river banks. She has persuaded their sheiks, or tribal leaders, to sign, too, she said.

But at the same human rights center is a friend of Ali's who was badly beaten by some men over the summer after she went to the market with her head uncovered.

Thanaa Salman, a 27-year-old school principal, pushed her way into local politics. She was elected to her neighborhood council, but the elections for its presidency were held without her knowledge, she said. So she contacted the Americans who had organized the vote and demanded a new election. It was held, and she won the presidency by a narrow margin. Still, men tell her every day that she is destined to fail.

Women like Ibtisam Ali say they do not trust male politicians to protect freedom of religion and expression in a new constitution. And religious parties in the Governing Council have pushed for a resolution that would abolish a 1959 law that the justice minister, Hashim Abdul-Rahman al-Shibli, says drew on the most generous protections for women and children from different schools of Shariah.

"Women don't want clerics to write the constitution," Salman said.

According to Shibli, the resolution would stipulate that a Shiite woman, for example, would have her divorce adjudicated by Shiite law, a Sunni by Sunni law. Besides atomizing the law into many laws, Shibli noted, such a move would strip every woman of some rights. Inheritance rights for women are more generous under Shiite law than Sunni, for example, and divorce protections are better under Sunni law.

The resolution has been frozen for now by the Americans who run Iraq, and a move is on by some Governing Council members to void it. But supporters, like the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, indicate that they would like to bring it up again once Iraq gains its sovereignty.