Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Negotiating Rights in Iraq: Women and the Personal Status Law

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Negotiating Rights in Iraq: Women and the Personal Status Law

Article excerpt

Recent attempts to abolish the Personal Status Law, in force since 1959, with the intent of placing family matters in the hands of religious authorities, caused an uproar among Iraqi women's rights activists. This article seeks to place the protest in its historical context by tracing women's participation in shaping the Personal Status Law - touching upon both their achievements and disappointments. It highlights the threat that repealing the law would pose, not only to the advancements for which women activists have struggled long and hard, but more importantly to the very channel which made these achievements possible. It also exposes the "hidden costs" of the protest. Activists' energies were diverted into preserving a law which left many demands unanswered, and away from promoting improved legislation.

Since the toppling of Saddam Husayn by the US-led coalition, the threat of abolishing Iraq's progressive Personal Status Law, in force since 1959, has hung like a dark cloud over the heads of many Iraqi women. Recent attempts to introduce clauses into the permanent constitution that would effectively repeal the law were preceded by similar efforts in 2003. In both cases women's voices resonated in protest. An examination of the response of women's rights activists to the 2003 attempt at abolition provides a framework for acquiring a more profound understanding of the current controversy involving family law.

On December 29, 2003, the US-appointed Interim Governing Council (IGC), headed by 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Hakim, the Shi'i cleric who also leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), passed Decree 137 to abolish Iraq's Personal Status Law. In its place, the shari'a was to be applied in matters concerning marriage, divorce, custody of children, inheritance and all other matters of personal status, thus placing family affairs in the hands of religious authorities. In an effort to prevent this decision from becoming law, women openly condemned the move and carried out a series of organized protests. Activists representing 80 women's organizations demonstrated in al-Firdaws Square in Baghdad, carrying placards that read: "No to Discrimination Between Women and Men in Our New Iraq," "We Reject Decree 137 Which Sanctifies sectarianism and Division in Iraqi Society and Family." A delegation of women handed a letter of protest to 'Adnan Pachachi, rotating President of the IGC at the time, and a petition was sent to L. Paul Bremer, the Chief US Administrator in Iraq. At a conference addressing the role of women in politics, Decree 137 was a main focus of criticism. Protest also spread outside Baghdad. In Kirkuk, for example, women representing several Kurdish women's organizations demonstrated, and thousands of Kurdish women took to the streets at al-Sulaymaniyya.1

Activists denounced the absence of democratic debate. "Such a sweeping decision should be made over time, with an opportunity for public dialogue," said Nasrin Barwari, Minister of Public Works. "This is not what we hoped for in our new Iraq."2 They also warned of the consequences which a religious government, possibly heralded by this decision, would have on women and matters of personal status. According to retired judge Zakiyya Isma'il Haqqi, since 1959 Iraqi family law has evolved and been amended under a series of secular governments, giving women a "half-share in society" and an opportunity to develop as individuals. "This new law will send Iraqi families back to the Middle Ages. It will allow men to have four or five or six wives. It will take children away from their mothers. It will allow anyone who calls himself a cleric to open an Islamic court in his house and decide about who can marry and divorce and have rights."3 Activists not only demanded repeal of this decision but also an active role in drafting a new Personal Status Law. Maysun al-Damluji, president of the Iraqi Independent Women's Group, in an opening speech to the conference that addressed the role of women in politics, said that without the active participation of women's organizations, any change in the existing Personal Status Law would not be accepted by the Iraqi people. …

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