Monday, August 08, 2005

Iraq Women's Rights: Answering WSJ Opinion Journal

This morning I woke up to read the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal and found a piece by Reuel Marc Gerecht regarding the Iraq constitution in which he urges patience on the process as well as trying to convince people that the issue of Shari'a and women's rights should not cause us any alarm.

Many in America may not like the outcome--liberals are already overwhelmingly defining Iraqi democracy's success by whether women's social rights are protected and advanced--but the deliberations foretell what is likely to happen elsewhere in the region as it democratizes. Contrary to so much commentary in the U.S., it is the compromises--the liberal "imperfections"--in Iraq's experiment that may have the most positive repercussions in the Middle East.


For the record, I'm sure I'm not the kind of "liberal" that Mr. Gerecht is taking aim at with his rather wide sweeping commentary about judging failure based on whether women's rights are protected in the new Iraq constitution. However, I do believe that implementation of Shari'a law as the Shia religious parties are demanding is not just a step back from liberal democratization or a small hurdle that can be over come in the future, but a leap back to a past century. I am not a person that was expecting Iraq to copy the US in all it's government functions and laws, particularly since, historically, their system has been more closely based on European models of representative government and courts.

I believe that it is a distinct failure on Mr. Gerecht's part not to mention that women have had certain rights in Iraq for well over 50 years and the move to curtail them through implementation of Shari'a law is not a move forward nor a compromise that we should accept as some sort of "imperfection" in democratization. It is rather disengenuous of Mr. Gerecht not to recall this fact for his readers while attempting to assuage concerns about the document after we have paid billions and blood to achieve this very difficult objective.

In effect, Mr. Gerecht is saying that we should accept the outcome as the best that can be done. He then, further, gives inaccurate information on Shari'a:

Sharia or Islamic family law, probably the most resilient aspect of the Holy Law since it culturally underpins the highly stable Muslim home, may make some comeback in Iraqi law and in the new constitution. In all probability, this process will not be a Trojan horse, allowing for the subversion of democracy itself.


First, Shari'a is not simply "Islamic family law". Shari'a is, in fact, a law system that covers every aspect of judicial life, from civil, to criminal to "family" law. Further, in Iraq, the "stable Muslim home" may be underpinned by faith of the adherents, but it has not been the underpinning of Iraq family law for over 50 years and it surely did not require enshrinement in Iraq law prior to the invasion for the stability of the home to continue.

As for whether this is a "Trojan Horse, allowing for the subversion of democracy", I would rather not wait and see. It's application in Iran, surely the largest backer of the dominant Shia parties in Iraq, is hardly democratic or "liberal" in any sense and I'd bet that Mr. Gerecht does not look at Iran as a model of Islamic democracy in the Middle East.

Then Mr. Gerecht tells us why we shouldn't worry:

As long as women have the right to vote and the Iraqi Parliament remains the supreme chamber for political debate--and neither is seriously in question--then the inclusion of some aspects of Islamic family law into Iraq's civil code may well reinforce democracy's chances.


Mr. Gerecht must have been sleeping over the last month or else he would have known that even this was questionable until approximately a week ago when the "25% representation" clause was put back into the constitution after much wrangling and compromise. Compromise of what we don't know since it hasn't been publicized in an English written paper, but my fear is that it was in exchange for some part of Shari'a being allowed in the constitution. So, contrary to Mr. Gerecht's claims that it is of little consequence if Shari'a is enacted because of this inclusion and women's rights to vote, we still have much to be concerned about. The people with the most to lose are Iraqi women who have not had to worry about this for 50 years.

Iraq's nascent representative system, blessed by both Shiite and Sunni legal scholars, will gradually and inevitably open for public debate all aspects of the Holy Law and its proper place in a democratic society. The key is to begin the evolution by pulling mainstream clerics into the discussion.


Most of us who believe in separation of church and state (the real separation where priests and clerics do not get consulted on law or have a say in what laws are written without having been voted into a position as a representative), know that this is a problem because it mirrors Iran and other states in the ME where religion has an unhealthy hold on government, inflicting seriously un-liberal laws on its citizens if not down right medieval in its punishments.

Then Mr. Gerecht makes the most disengenuous comment that I have unfortunately seen and heard from both sides of the spectrum, both liberal cultural relativists and conservatives who just want to see the process done so they can declare victory and go home:

Americans of a feminist disposition should realize that equal rights between the sexes is not a precondition for the growth of democracy. If this were so, Western democracy never would have developed.


As an American feminist, I object to Mr. Gerecht's use of "Western democracy never would have developed". We are two hundred years farther into the future and one hundred years past the first stirrings of women's suffrage, not just in the US, but in the world. Once again, I would remind those that believe as Mr. Gerecht does, that this is not an issue of a society where women have never had rights and protections. They have for fifty years. In 1959, family law and women's rights were enshrined in Iraq law and have existed since then, even under the egregious rule of Saddam Hussein. They had a women's rights movement at the turn of the century, just as the US and many other countries in the "west" have had.

This is a step back, not a tentative step forward.

Further, a reminder that "Islamic family law" is not simple legislation that controls divorce, inheritance and custody of children. Shari'a includes legislation on rape under which a woman is considered guilty of her own assault and, if they are lucky, the perpetrator "might" get some sort of sentence, but is just as likely to get leniency by claiming he was enticed or the woman may even have the "choice" of marrying her attacker. This is about conserving "male" honor or the honor of the "family" not protecting women. It is a fact of every day life in Iran and Saudi Arabia to name a few places where Shari'a is enacted.

Further, the woman has no right to divorce her husband. He can be a philanderer or abusive spouse or beat the children regularly or all of the above. Under Shari'a, a woman cannot leave her husband and seek protection within the family and certainly not through the law.

I am reminded of the video taped execution of a woman in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. She had left her husband and taken the children because he beat her and them. He beat her so bad that she could barely walk or talk. Friends took her in and hid her for three months until someone turned her in. The Taliban took her away, had a short and highly injudicious hearing, sentenced her to die, took her to the soccer field and executed her with an AK47 shot to the head in front of her children.

Certainly, the Taliban were of the Wahhabi/Sunni sect, but do not imagine that Shari'a under Shia Islamists would be any less egregious even with women having the right to vote and being 65% of the population, particularly when the Shia religious parties dominate certain areas and other controls on women through these laws would put them at the disadvantage wherein they may be coerced into voting against their own benefit by threat within the home or from reprisals in the areas they live controlled by these parties.

As I noted before, where the Shia Islamists are in control, women's rights are not just "slightly" eroded, but severely curtailed and women are targeted for beatings and death, extra judiciously ordered by impromptu courts or simply leaders of these organizations.

The fact is, students have been beaten for appearing in public together, not wearing hijab to university and women are arbitrarily killed for suspicion of being "indecorous".

We attend weddings, although weddings in Basra go without music. A group of women who sing in parties and weddings were killed -- shot to death. The only survivor pretended that she was dead.


This not in the infamous "Sunni Triangle" where foreign jihadists have attempted to ennact Taliban style rule, but in Basra, completely controlled by the Shia Islamists organizations such as SCIRI with a large contingent of Muqtadr al Sadr supporters. Music shops are shut down, women cannot walk alone, and any woman even suspicioned of being "immoral" are shot and killed. No court. No legal charges. Simply removed on the orders of these organizations.

The local government are largely controlled by Al-Fadila Party, which is in alliance with Al-Sadr.[snip]

If what I heard is true, they are giving us more rights than any Arabic country. But I wish they keep the quota for women representation. In time, say 20 years from now, women would have proved themselves and won't be afraid of being neglected politically.[snip]

Q: Do you think there is a possibility of the Iraqi south turning into an Iranian-style theocracy?

A: Maybe. Some people think that there should be an Islamic state; but not like Iran. I fear little by little we are driven that way


This was from an interview with a woman in Basra conducted by Fayrouz: Iraqi in America.

This is the reality of Shari'a enshrined in law except that it will not be "extra judicious" but legal and protected activity under law.

In a recent article by the late Steven Vincent, the true naivety of Americans assuming that the Shia parties are not extremist Islamists was apparent:

"I want to have a positive effect on this country's future," the Captain averred. "For example, whenever I learn of a contracting firm run by women, I put it at the top of my list for businesses I want to consider for future projects." I felt proud of my countryman; you couldn't ask for a more sincere guy.

Layla, however, flashed a tight, cynical smile. "How do you know," she began, "that the religious parties haven't put a woman's name on a company letterhead to win a bid? Maybe you are just funneling money to extremists posing as contractors." Pause. The Captain looked confused. "Religious parties? Extremists?"


This isn't just apparent in soldiers close to the problem in Iraq, but by Mr. Gerecht's article, apparent in the US intelligensia and media as well.

And, in an earlier post:

In walks a man, who plants himself in front of the TV. Even as Dr. Basma recounts how increasing numbers of students are shrouding themselves in hejab, this worthy sits transfixed by the televised bevy of dark-eyed houri prancing and dancing and rotating their heads until their long, thick, black-as-the -Kaaba tresses spin like propellor blades. The irony is not lost at our table, although we don't mention it.

The man, however, feels no such discretion: soon, instead of Lebanese teens in adornment-revealing half-cut tees and crotch-level jeans, he's staring at us--staring with the same blank, dull, malevolently stupid glare I've encountered so often in this country. I tense; Layla, sensitive by now to my misplaced gallantry, cautions, "I know, I know, just ignore him..." while Dr. Basma talks gamely on, trying to blot the intrusive gaze from her consciousness as well.[snip]

And once more, I'm reminded that the real agents of Iraq's fate are not media-friendly issues like the "insurgency" or the "Occupation" or even the upcoming constitutional convention--but rather subtle, ephemeral, non-documentable social norms and cutoms that permeate and regulate the lives of nearly every person in this country--especially females. I've railed about this topic before, but it never ceases to astonish me, the ways in which Iraqi men subjugate and control their women with their obsessions on "reputation," "honor" and that all-purpose cudgel, "proper Muslim behavior."[snip]

Adding hypocrisy to chauvenism, the religious parties take the opposite tact in public, policing female behavior with a vigor that makes the Puritans look like jitter-bugging zoot-suiters. Yesterday, I interviewed a 22 year-old Psych grad from Basra University. She told me how, as they entered the campus each morning, she and other female students had to pass through a gauntlet of religious militiamen "hired" by the administration for "protection." The gunsels examined each woman's hejab--no showing of hair, ladies--and the length of their abiyas, staring into their faces for signs of make-up. (I've also learned that similar guards at a college in Amarra, north of Basra, scrutinize women's feet to insure they are wearing black socks--it's an Iranian thing--inducing many students to paint their feet and ankles black.) Anyone failing the Islamic Dignity test is sent home, with a stern rebuke to her parents for allowing their daughter to venture out in such a degraded state.

A few months ago, the student continued, a young man and woman were ambling down a narrow path at the university when black-shirted militiamen accosted them, accusing the couple of "unIslamic behavior." When they protested their innocence, the brave warriors of Allah began beating the woman; when the man tried to defend her, they knocked him to the ground, punching and kicking him into submission. [snip]

But this is what Basra has become in the aftermath of the elections. These are the unwritten, unlegislated and unchallengeable "social" and "religious" norms that have an iron grip on the city. And yet back home, you hardy find a public discussion or even acknowledgement of these shackles on human behavior--the Right is too busy congratulating itself on the progress of Iraqi democracy and the Left is obsessed with multimcultural relativism and discrediting Bush. Meanwhile, Bedouin customs and religious edicts--in short, tribal Islam--is grinding the hearts and souls and futures of thousands of Basran women into the desert sand. All they can do is curl their hands into talons, burn inside and wait for the day of their true liberation.


This is without legislation of Islamic law as a "source" of constitutional law in Iraq. Imagine what it will be like all over Iraq if it is enshrined.

As I noted before, allowing any repression of women's rights will be tantamount to enslaving the women of Iraq after a half century of relative freedom and security in their persons, protected under existing law.

We should not set back and just blithely imagine that it is simple matters of divorce or inheritance or even the aspect of "voting" as the only concerns of women in Iraq nor that Shari'a is a minor "set back".

Fortunately, some people in the US government are paying a little attention.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - The U.S. ambassador called Tuesday for the protection of women's rights in Iraq's new constitution, saying it was an important element for the country's success.
After meeting with representatives from some Iraqi women's groups, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said they agreed that the equality of women "is a fundamental requirement for Iraq's progress."

The ambassador said that the U.S. government is expecting a constitution that would ensure full rights to all Iraqis, regardless of their sex, ethnicity or gender.

"My focus is to help get a constitution that does this. Of course, the Iraqis will decide but we will help in any way that we can," he said.

Khalilzad said his government would encourage Iraqi politicians to exclude any constitutional articles that discriminate or limit opportunities for any Iraqi citizens.

On Monday, women activists urged parliament to limit the role of Islam in the new constitution and follow international treaties on the rights of women and children.

With efforts exerted by religious parties to give Islam a central role in the Iraqi law, fears are growing that women would lose rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Most worrying for women's groups has been the section on civil rights in the draft constitution, which some feel would significantly roll back women's rights under a 1959 civil law enacted by a secular regime.

Under Sharia law, women would inherit only half of what men receive. In issues of marriage and divorce, women would be at a significant disadvantage since only men would have the legal power to initiate divorces.


Still, this is not enough. We need to help these ladies directly and we need to keep pressure on our government representatives to keep pressure on the Iraqi government to insure that women's rights are protected, more than just representation in government or voting. These women need legal recourse through which they can complain and receive surcease under law, in civil and criminal courts.

You can find out how to help at this link and you can read other information on women's rights in Iraq here.

2 comments:

an american said...

I hope Layla/Nour recovers. Iraq needs women like her. Men too.

In one part of the Steven Vincent post you linked to she tells the naive captain “Look at them, their corruption, their incompetence, their stupidity!” She was referring to the people controlling Basra, but she could have just as easily been referring to those controlling Washington.

Anyway, Sadr is bad news and has been for quite a while. He’s not very bright, but he has street sense tapping into and using peoples’ fears, and he's ambitious. Before the Iraqi elections you could see he was positioning himself and his group for a possible civil war. He still is. Plus he’s working on gaining enough power to start a civil war himself if needed. Religion is just a tool for him. This guy would put a knife in Sistani’s back in a heartbeat to make himself top turban to give more legitimacy to his plans.

We should have taken him out last year when we issued arrest warrants for him. That we didn’t pursue it to completion had to be a political decision. A stupid one. However, it could still be reversed to get Sadr now before substantial troops are removed in time for next year’s midterm elections. And yes, if the administration did so I would give them credit for at least once showing some spine and intelligence.

So what are the odds? Will the administration go after a guy who has killed American soldiers and as we allege a moderate cleric who would like nothing more than the talibanization of Iraq with himself at the top…or will they busy themselves with preparing “Freedom Accomplished” banners for the midterms? We’ll see.

Alan Olsen said...

This bit of Sharia law becoming part of the new Iraq Constitution destroys all of U.S. efforts! The emporer of Japan was left in place but completely marginalized. If a similar solution is not found for Iraq all will be for naught. Alan Olsen