A rather medieval bill is currently under consideration in Iraq, where some legislators would like women to have far fewer rights.
The personal status law, recently approved by the country’s executive cabinet and now in the hands of parliament, proposes to lower the minimum age for marriage for girls to nine, legalize marital rape, and prevent a woman from leaving the house without her husband’s permission. It also wants to make polygamy easier, divorce harder, and significantly restrict women’s rights to inheritance and child custody.
Needless to say, many in Iraq are not thrilled at the prospect and human rights activists are up in arms about the proposed legislation.
“We consider it a crime against humanity, against the dignity of women, against childhood,” Hanaa Edwar, secretary general of the human rights group Iraqi al Amal Association, told VICE News. “This is very bad, very diminishing for women.”
Edwar called the law “backwards” and said it is not only anti-constitutional but it also violates the principles of Islam.
“It changes the relationship between the wife and the husband, it is really contrary to religion, which bases this relationship on love, understanding, and on partnership,” she said. “This law is only a tool for sex, smashing the dignity of women and smashing the stability of family life.”
The draft legislation comprises 254 legal articles and is called the Jaafari Personal Status Law because it is based on the Jaafari school of Shia religious jurisprudence. The law would only apply to the country’s Shia citizens, a majority of the population. But that alone, critics say, promotes sectarianism in an already deeply divided Iraq.
“Iraq is in conflict and undergoing a breakdown of the rule of law,” Basma al Khateeb, a women’s rights activist, told Human Rights Watch (HRW). “The passage of the Jaafari law sets the ground for legalized inequality.”
Proposed by the conservative al Fadhila Party — the Islamic Virtue Party — the law was originally supposed to remain on hold until Iraq’s legislative elections, next April, but was abruptly approved last month by Iraq’s Council of Ministers, the country’s executive body. The vote shocked many in Iraq.
“It’s really intended to be a tool for the upcoming election, part of the propaganda of the al Fadhila Party,” Edwar explained. “You can play the majority of illiterate people on the question of sectarianism.”
Incidentally, the legislation would have a severe and negative impact on the already low literacy rates among girls which is already down to 50 percent in rural areas, Edwar said.
“We will deprive these girls from continuing their education,” she added.
Observers say that the law, which violates all kinds of international conventions on women and children's rights, would also breach Iraq’s own constitution, which prohibits “discrimination and distinctions between Iraqis.”
Set against a background of deepening sectarianism in the country, the law is widely seen as a provocation.
“The government pretty much provokes the Sunni community by making it very clear that it considers itself a Shia country, and this personal status law is another good example of that,” Erin Evers, Iraq researcher for HRW, told VICE News. “But that basically just paves the way for more division, and also encourages others, for instance Salafi Sunnis, to have their own personal status law.”
The law is so controversial that few in Iraq expect it to actually pass the parliamentary vote, but the fact it has made it this far is enough of a concern for many.
“That’s what people are worried about,” Evers said. “You’ve got this massive step backwards.”
A broad spectrum of Iraqis — including Shia and Sunni religious leaders — have criticized the law as both discriminatory and against Islam.
Ayatollah Bashir al Najafy, a leading Shia cleric, criticized the Council of Ministers for its failure to consult Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani before passing the draft law, and said it contains “numerous digressions from both civil and religious jurisprudence.”
Iraqi activists declared March 8, International Women's Day, a “day of mourning” and took to the streets of Baghdad to protest the law. According to Evers, political and religious proponents of the law called the protesters a “bunch of lesbians” and said that “anyone who doesn’t want a religious state can go to hell.”
Iraq’s current personal status law is “deeply flawed, but still considered one of the most progressive in the region,” Evers said. If it passes parliament, the Jaafari law would bring Iraq into line with some of the world’s least fun countries to be a woman.
“It’s a lot of pretty medieval provisions,” Evers said. She added that a colleague working on rights issues in notoriously women-unfriendly Saudi Arabia said that even that conservative kingdom was considering setting a higher minimum age for marriage.
“I can’t believe that Iraq is headed towards being worse than Saudi when it comes to women and girls,” he told her.
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