Civil Liberties of Iraqi Women

Just like in any other Muslim countries around the world, the women in Iraq have continuously struggled for their rights to be accepted as equals with men but the religion of Islam, which is the foundation of all laws, has restricted their freedom as human beings and reduced their status to second class citizens. Iraqi women met many obstacles in their fight to secure and defend their human rights because they are discriminated by laws to participate in political or public activities that could have advanced their cause. In addition, their access to education, healthcare, and employment are also limited.

The Iraqi constitution, past and present, does not guarantee protection for women despite the declaration of equality and freedom to all Iraqis. In fact, many government legislations have provisions that promote women’s rights but in reality these laws are not implemented. This has put the women at risk of violence such as rape, kidnapping, torture, and other abuses. Although, Iraqi women compose 60 percent of the population, they are being neglected and not consulted on the country’s affairs.

More often, women are the sole victims of conflicts. Iraq has a history of wars and women are the biggest losers. They have become refugees and widows working hard to feed their families and survive. They have witnessed the execution of their children and husbands as well as underwent other humiliating treatment from oppressive regimes. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by a US led coalition force, it seems the country would see a new hope of change where economic, political, and social opportunities await Iraqi women.

However, the situation has become worst where women’s rights would become extinct under the new government. In the Article 2 of the 2005 constitution, it states “that Islam is the official religion of the State and the foundation source of legislation.”

Many women fear Islamic law as it would control their independence and basic rights particularly relating to inheritance, divorce, and marriage. Iraq’s current discriminatory legislative provisions illustrate that constitutional provisions alone do not guarantee women the fulfillment of their rights. Legislative change, coupled with active enforcement mechanisms, remains necessary to bring Iraq into full compliance with antidiscrimination instruments and assure to women their equal rights (ABA, 2005, p. 3).

Status of Women before the American Occupation

The development of women’s rights in Iraq is a complex history filled with varying laws and views on how men ran the affairs of women. For decades of being valued as only half to men, women came to enjoy their freedom to help create a stronger Iraq both politically and economically. When Iraq became a state in 1958 to the 1990s, Iraqi women had more rights compared to other Muslim countries despite the existence of dictatorship governments like Saddam Hussein. Women first gained equal rights when the Personal Status Code was introduced in 1959 by the revolutionary government of General Abdul Karim Kassem.

The law was somewhat a breakaway from Islam. The code instituted laws on family and marriage giving women more autonomy and privileges in regards to inheritance and by limiting the practice of polygamy among men. When the Ba’ath Party took power in 1963, the code was amended adapting traditional Islamic views on women’s rights making polygamy lawful and reduced women’s inheritance as compared to men. However, women were granted greater rights to help in the development of the country.

In 1970 and 1990, the government of Saddam Hussein ratified an interim constitution with non-discrimination clauses that provided women formal equality and protection. Saddam and the Ba’ath Party created the General Federation of Iraqi Women (GFIW) to promote women’s rights. The only women’s organization allowed, the GFIW operated primarily through female-based community centers to offer educational, job-training, and other social programs. It also communicated state propaganda.

The government passed laws to encourage literacy for the entire population, female and male, between the ages of 6 and 45 (Lasky, 2006, p. 4). In the 1970s towards the early 80s, Iraqi women were among the most learned women in the Middle East where majority of them have joined the work force. In spite of these efforts, the rights of women were merely used as a political tool to advance the interests of the government.

In 1980, Iraqi women were granted the right to vote and allowed to become member of the National Assembly as well as in local government positions. Nonetheless, few women took interest in government career because of illiteracy and the culture of fear. Although many of them were capable their families and husbands opposed the move, which was against cultural traditions.

As much as they enjoyed more rights, women likewise experienced a lot of brutality from Saddam’s regime. In order to extract information from them, Secret Police jailed, raped, tortured, and killed many women. In the face of atrocities, women’s rights have been inscribed in the constitution. Prior to the 1991 U.S. war and the 13 years of the genocidal sanctions, Iraqi women enjoyed unquestionable quality rights to education and health. Iraqi women had the most progressive human rights in the region and Iraqi women were the first Arab women to hold high positions in academia, law, medicine and government.

Before the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iraqi women made up 40 per cent of the public-sector work force. Men and women received equal pay for work, education and health care were free at all levels. In the 1980s, a government program to eradicate illiteracy among Iraqi women was exceedingly successful, and women have traditionally enjoyed freedoms not found in other Arab and Muslim countries (Hassan, 2004, p. 2).

With the downfall of Saddam, conservative Islamists are now gaining ground to put back Islamic laws considered to be anti-women. This has been the root cause of oppression among Iraqi women. Now that Islam has been declared as the basis of all laws in the new constitution, women are again preparing themselves for another round of fight to redeem their freedom and civil liberties.

Status of Women Under the New Government

After the invasion of Iraq and the institution of the new government, the conditions of women in Iraq turned for the worst for many. It was like taking two steps backward as their basic rights are threatened to be abolished. In addition, many lives were lost due to the war. Many civilian casualties have been women and children as a result of aerial bombings.

More than 70 percent of the women lost their jobs and 57 percent have no sufficient healthcare according to the Women for Women International. News reports revealed that some Iraqi women have been held hostage by the U.S. soldiers using them as baits to force their wanted husbands to surrender. On the other hand, insurgents have tortured and killed a number of women whom they suspect of cooperating with the new government. Since the occupation, Iraqi women have been viciously attacked, intimidated, kidnapped and prevented from being part of a new Iraq. Violence and threats have directly affected women and have been specifically aimed at women.

Armed opposition groups have targeted and killed several women political leaders and women’s right activists. Women detained by U.S. forces have in some cases been subjected to sexual abuse, possibly including rape (AI, 2005, p. 9). Now that the constitution has been passed, women’s rights are again experiencing oppression as their roles have been reduced to caring to children and the elderly.

Despite a more secular and liberal Iraq, women are not totally free. They have been left in the reconstruction process of Iraq’s recovery plan but were given the chance to participate in political decision making such as the elections in 2005. Under the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) created by the Coalition Provisional Authority, women have rights to vote and be elected in the Transitional National Assembly. Out of the 275 seats in the assembly, 87 were women and out of 36 cabinet positions four women were appointed but none in the three-member Presidency Council.

Even though this was an unprecedented accomplishment for Iraqi women, they are still seen as a weak group incapable of making changes. Men and the society at large need to be convinced of the capabilities of women in managing the affairs of the country. Although, women are now free to form organizations and become active in civil and government activities, they are excluded in most decision-making and top leadership positions. Their representation in the judiciary is very low with only four women among the 36 member Council of Ministers. Many women are also reluctant to join the government because of threats and violence directed towards them by conservatives.

The Iraqi Government

In April 2003, after one month of the invasion, the U.S. back Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was formed to restore law and order for the reconstruction and economic development of Iraq. The CPA promised to promote women’s rights even appointing a Kurdish-Iraqi woman in the interim government in the name of Nasreen Barwai. However, there was doubt whether the CPA would help advance women’s cause and incorporate their presence in the reconstruction process.

By July 2003, the CPA established a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) wherein three women were appointed one of whom was assassinated, Akila al-Hashimi. She was replaced by another woman named Salama al Khufaji. However, women were still misrepresented in all levels of government and the CPA was highly criticized for not giving enough leadership posts to women.

Under the IGC, women’s rights were nearly abolished with Resolution 137 that would place the Iraqi Family Code under Islamic law. This code has protected women’s rights since 1959 particularly on inheritance, marriage, and divorce. Due to protests from 80 women’s organizations, the IGC cancelled the resolution. In March 2004, the IGC signed the Transitional Administrative Law that served as the country’s interim constitution. TAL gave women political participation and wider rights but it was criticized because it did not assure women their rights.

TAL offers no explicit guarantee that women will have equal rights to marry, within marriage, and at its dissolution; It does not explicitly guarantee women the right to inherit on an equal basis with men; It fails to guarantee Iraqi women married to non-Iraqis the right to confer citizenship to their children (Pina, 206, p. 8). Women have been excluded in the drafting of the TAL that has worried Iraqi women but government leaders like Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has pledged support for women’s rights. Women are still hoping that the government will give them some liberal rights in matters of marriage, nationality, and inheritance.

The Impact of Islam on Women’s Rights

In Section Two, Rights and Liberties, of the new constitution, it declares that “Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, origin, color, religion, sect, belief or opinion, or economic or social status”. On he other hand, in Article Two, it states that “No law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam”. This is a contradictory when it comes to women’s rights because under Islam, women are deprived of their basic liberties and could be vulnerable to discrimination.

Most Islamic countries are hesitant to replace Islamic law with secular law. Those who have attempted have been unsuccessful and always ended up in violent chaos. Instead they tried to advance women’s rights under Islamic framework. Iraqi women are now harassed by conservatives for adopting a more liberal standard particularly for not wearing veil or dress up in traditional clothes.

Under Islamic law, a woman’s place is in the home as wife and mother while that of a man is in the public sphere working to support the family. Thus a woman is always dependent on man for her existence. There are many limitations women face while following Islamic law. Although they are entitled to inheritance more often their share is less than that of a man. Another form of oppression of women’s rights is honor killing where it is lawful to kill a woman if she brought shame to the family though infidelity or being a rape victim.

This practice is said to bring back respect to the family name damaged by a woman’s blunder. In this scenario, a woman is pressured to kill herself to avoid legal penalties. The right of women to seek divorce is very much limited because it is the men that primarily demand for a divorce. By divorcing their husbands, women have to go through the long process of court proceedings to convince a judge while a husband can easily demand for a divorce. They face a lot of financial and legal obstacles.

In every travel, a woman needs to ask permission from her husband before she could leave. In addition, she could not travel alone but always accompanied by an unmarried relative or a legal escort. Moreover, women have to follow a strict dress code such as the wearing of veils and behave appropriately so as not to attract sexual attention especially in front of men. In Islamic thinking, women are considered responsible for sexual temptation that is why they are required to cover themselves.

This practice has been viewed as oppression to women’s rights. All these are just some of the hindrances that Iraqi women now face in their struggle for equal rights. However, with the implementation of the new constitution, their rights could be derailed. Notwithstanding the numerous promises made by government officials, in reality the new hope for women’s rights seems to diminish each passing day as laws have been prohibiting them from exercising their freedom.

The present constitution clearly favors men’s rights over women’s at the same time ignoring the social and economic welfare of Iraqi women. The attempt to abolish the Family Code or the Personal Status Law is seen as an attempt to suppress the rights of women. Unfortunately, these attempts have already been inscribed in the constitution. In brief, Iraqi women have lost a lot of their achievements, for which they sacrificed so much over the last four decades (Baban, 2006, (p. 10). In the history of Iraq, the promotion of women’s rights was just a strategy to consolidate power by a regime and exploited to gain support for the government.

Even today, that approach is used by the new government who seems not keen on enshrining women’s rights in the constitution or in any legislation. In this manner, the women in Iraq will continue to suffer discrimination not knowing when their rights would be respected and addressed. As of the moment, all they could do is to call on the international community for help pressuring governing bodies like the United Nations to inform the Iraqi government of its responsibilities towards the women.

The ouster of Saddam ushered instabilities and insecurities in the country making women victims of various crimes. Hopes that the new government would provide women better opportunities soon turned into nightmare for most Iraqi women when the constitution largely favored a more conservative interpretation of their rights under Islamic law. In spite of difficulties and danger surrounding their rights women persisted in influencing the political process through advocacy campaigns and meeting with world leaders that would help them carry into the center of government. However, their efforts proved fruitless as they continued to encounter strong resistance and opposition in the new government.


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