Iraqis divided by treatment of women in constitution

Times Staff Writer

It has been nearly 30 years since she got married, but Iraqi legislator Samira Musawi still bristles at what she considers the ultimate indignity: a law requiring witnesses to certify the rite.

She and her husband-to-be grabbed a couple of strangers, gave them each about $10 and were legally wed.

“I didn’t even know these people; they could have been thugs,” Musawi said of the men who validated the 1979 civil ceremony in a west Baghdad court.


That memory is one reason Musawi, who heads parliament’s Women, Family and Childhood Committee, supports Article 41, a clause in Iraq’s interim constitution that supporters say will prevent state meddling in civil affairs by allowing Iraqis to marry, divorce, decide inheritances and settle other personal issues according to their religious sect. For example, under Shiite law, no witnesses are required for a marriage, but Sunnis require two.

But a fight over the article’s potential effect has presented a stumbling block to lawmakers trying to finalize a constitution by year’s end.

Article 41 is just one line in the 16-page document, but to critics, it is the worst.

Opponents, including women’s rights activists and legal scholars, say the one poorly worded sentence opens the door to rule by draconian interpretations of Islamic law that could sanction the stoning of adulterous women, allow underage girls to be forced into marriage and permit men to abandon their wives by declaring, “I divorce you,” three times.

In the southern city of Basra, there are already signs of religious extremism being used to rein in women. Police say gangs enforcing their idea of Islamic law have killed 15 women in the last month. “There are gangs roaming through the streets . . . pursuing women and carrying out threats and killing because of what the women wear or because they are using makeup,” the Basra police commander, Maj. Gen. Abdul Jaleel Khalaf, said this month.

Sometimes notes are left on the women’s bodies saying they were killed for violating religious law or social traditions.

“This is a mockery for us, when you speak about freedom,” said Hanaa Edwar, who heads the Iraqi Amal Assn., a human rights group opposing Article 41. “There will be no choices for women if a man makes a decision that he wants to live a certain way. Step by step, we will end up in a religious state.”

The controversy highlights the broader debate here over how large a role religion should play in Iraqis’ lives. It also underscores shortfalls of the original constitution, which was drafted in 2005 by newly elected Iraqi legislators facing a U.S.-imposed deadline. Redrafting the document is one of the benchmarks sought by the Bush administration to set the stage for an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal. But it has been delayed three times as lawmakers haggle over issues such as provincial powers, religious and cultural freedoms, and distribution of oil revenue.

There are only two women on the 25-member committee in charge of rewriting the constitution. They face formidable opposition from the Shiite Muslim lawmakers who dominate Iraq’s parliament, including Humam Hamoodi, who heads the panel.

Hamoodi, whose robes and turban attest to religious devotion, scoffs at opposition to Article 41. “You’re considering it a big deal!” he said, laughing. “This is a kind of liberty and freedom. This is the age of democracy.”

Musawi agreed. A Shiite who wears a prim black tunic and a leopard-print head scarf, Musawi says she does not want non-Muslims to be governed by her beliefs. Article 41 ensures this cannot happen, she said.

But, she said, it also recognizes the reality in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where most lawmakers, including many of the 75 women in the 275-seat parliament, represent Shiite religious parties.

“If you ask me if I want a theocratic society, I will tell you no. But at the same time, I cannot ignore the fact that religion is part of our existence, and we have to accept that,” Musawi said.

For many Iraqi women, the reminder of what is at stake became clear in May when a video circulated of a 17-year-old girl being dragged through a mob of braying men, who pelted her to death with rocks and paving stones. The girl, whose gruesome death was captured on several cellphone cameras, had violated the rules of her minority Yazidi sect by having a relationship with a Muslim man. Her killing and the reprisal attacks on Yazidis that ensued illustrate the problems inherent in not having a single law covering all Iraqis’ domestic affairs, critics of Article 41 say.

Three of the girl’s cousins are in prison awaiting trial in connection with her death. Many Yazidis have condemned the incident but also say it is an internal tribal issue that does not warrant attention from the media or outsiders. That attitude troubles women’s rights activists, who say that religion and tribal culture could be used as shields for perpetrators of such violence.

“I am sure we will be hearing stories like this over and over again,” said Luma Ali, a 23-year-old engineering student who opposes any role for religion in government. “I cannot believe this is still happening to us women.”

“It is really an insecure world for women in Iraq,” said a female friend, who was afraid to give her name. “Everything is subject to development in Iraq -- everything except the way women should live, marry and die.”

Supporters of Article 41 say criminal law and international human rights agreements would prevent the Yazidi girl’s killers from using the provision to justify their actions. But opponents are not willing to take that chance.

At a news conference in Baghdad in August, 10 female legislators suggested that Article 41 be replaced with the old family law under Hussein, which drew on Islamic teachings and tribal traditions but was considered radically liberal for the Middle East.

First passed in 1959 and later amended, the law allowed a man to have as many as four wives, but only after obtaining his first wife’s permission and convincing a judge that he was capable of supporting more than one woman. Daughters were guaranteed inheritance equal to that of sons, and custody of children in the event of divorce did not automatically fall to the father. Women were allowed to divorce abusive husbands, and forced marriage was banned.

Officially, Iraq is an Islamic republic: The constitution declares Islam the state religion and “a fundamental source of legislation.” Laws are made in a representative legislature, enforced by an executive branch and weighed by a judiciary.

Culturally, the roots of a religious state are becoming evident: The streets of Baghdad are seas of cloaked women, and billboards featuring the country’s most influential Shiite leaders are common. Nongovernmental organizations are hampered in their attempts to improve women’s education and vocational training. Human rights groups say so-called honor killings, though not widely reported, are common in remote regions.

Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations, who advised women’s groups during the drafting of the constitution, said she warned that Sharia law could seep into Iraqis’ daily lives.

“It’s not as if these issues were not debated and hashed out, but they were shoved under the rug, by everybody,” she said. “Everybody wanted to leave them.

“I would say to them, ‘What are you going to say about Sharia in the constitution?’ And they would say, ‘There won’t be Sharia in the constitution.’ I think there was a sense of denial among some of the more secular women’s groups, and perhaps a disconnect between their world and the world of the religious Iraqis coming into power,” she said.

Since then, Iraq’s security problems have severely hindered activists’ ability to stage protests, as they did in 2003, when the interim Governing Council first tried to replace the Hussein-era edicts.

“There are too many fears now,” said Alia Nasayif Jassim, one of the two women on the constitutional review committee, who became visibly frustrated when discussing her inability to force change. “Our voices are simply too weak.”

Jassim, a Shiite, says it is a challenge to speak out against Article 41 without being seen as defending Hussein’s law. “There are fears of everything connected to the old regime,” she said.

Activists say they hold little hope for help from the United States, which vetoed an attempt in 2003 to impose Islamic law.

“It’s hard for us to lobby strongly and say this is wrong, this is right,” said a Western diplomat. “If you put it across too strongly, it comes across as you’re not sensitive to their religion or their history.”

Edwar said her organization had appealed for help from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) but had not received a reply to a letter it sent in May.

Times staff writers Zeena Kareem and Wail Alhafith contributed to this report.