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Defining women

Iraq | Will the new constitution affirm democratic values or use democracy to impose Shariah? What it says about women will tell

Issue: "Space: Dawn of Discovery," Aug. 13, 2005

Zeena al-Qushtaini was a successful Iraqi businesswoman who owned a pharmacy in Baghdad. A divorced mother, she was known for her Western style of dress, refusing to don the traditional Islamic headscarf. But her progressive ways and involvement with women's activists led to her death. Last November, Zeena was kidnapped and murdered-her body found on a highway, clad in a black, full-length abaya and a blood-stained headscarf. A note attached to the abaya read, "She was a collaborator against Islam."

As the Iraqi National Assembly races toward an Aug. 15 deadline for completion of a constitution, many Iraqi women fear the future. A glance at numerous Muslim nations reveals how Islam can marginalize women, denying them basic rights and sometimes persecuting them. Article 1 of the latest leaked draft proposes, in translation, that "Islam is the official religion of the state and it is the main source of legislation and it [Parliament] is not allowed to make laws that contradict the fundamental teachings of Islam and its rules." That means Islamic law-notorious for making women second-class citizens-will play a role in domestic issues. The rights of Iraqi women will lie in the hands of 275 Parliament members who will attempt to integrate democracy and Islam.

Iraqis disagree about how much weight Shariah-or Islamic law-holds in the new Iraq. While some see Islam as merely one source of law, others-including many of the newly elected Shiites-see it as the primary source of law. If the latter view becomes dominant, Iraqi life may be better than it was under Saddam Hussein, when laws were relatively docile toward women but hundreds of thousands were killed or tortured at will, but it may be worse along predictably stringent codes seen elsewhere in the Arab world. If Shariah law becomes the dominant force in the Iraqi Parliament, oppression against women will probably be woven into the law.

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Yanar Mohammad says she already feels the winds of change. In 2003, she founded the Organization for Women's Freedom (OWF) in Iraq with two other women, and since then has received a death threat for her work. "In Baghdad, there are Islamic mobs on trucks and dressed like the street police in the Islamic Republic of Iran with black and green flags on their trucks," Mrs. Mohammad said: "If a woman is driving, they assault her. If she is not wearing a veil, they tell her this is the last day she can not wear one."

The right to choose attire isn't the only freedom Iraqi women could lose. Interpretations of Islamic law vary, but issues at stake include divorce, child custody, and the basic equality of women. According to Mrs. Mohammad, polygamy-or forced prostitution by her definition-will not just be allowed but encouraged if Shariah underpins the constitution. Shariah-inspired statutes typically allow men up to four wives, and Shia Islamic law also permits temporary marriages, the practice of marrying for a short period of time while away from family.

Mrs. Mohammad predicted to WORLD that divorce will be acceptable for men but close to impossible for women: "If a man says three times 'you are divorced,' he is divorced. If a woman wants a divorce, she has to prove why she deserves a divorce." Mrs. Mohammad also contends that equality will be offered within the Shariah context of one man being equal to four women. Shariah law contends that the testimony of a man is far more reliable than that of a woman, and some use this decree for honor killings, the practice of murdering a female family member for chastity violations, including rape. Fearing that these acts could become more common, the OWF has created two women's shelters in Iraq for women who fear honor killing.

At the same time almost one-third of the 275 members of the new Parliament are female, a ratio demanded by groups like OWF and endorsed by U.S. diplomats. Many of these women are fighting for equality, but a few, unexpectedly, are speaking out in favor of Islamic law and working to enact Shariah legislation.

Jenan al-Ubaedey, one such woman, told The Times of London, "Look, I didn't make the law, God did, so it can't be changed. This is the way things are." Even when it comes to violence, she sides with Islamic law: "If you say to a man, you cannot use force against a woman, you are asking the impossible. So we say a husband can beat his wife, but he cannot leave a mark. If he does that, he will be punished." (Sura 4:34 in the Quran instructs Muslim men dealing with unruly wives to "admonish them, separate them in beds, and beat them.")

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