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Women's rights a divisive debate - among women

By Associated Press
Published April 17, 2005

BAGHDAD - Almost a third of the members of Iraq's new parliament are women, one of the highest proportions in the world, but that doesn't mean full-blown, Western-style rights are at hand. Many of the women are conservatives who want Islamic law to enforce the veil and all that goes with it.

Representation for women was a U.S. priority in building a new Iraq, but typical of those elected in the historic Jan. 30 vote is Salamah al-Khafaji, who covers herself from head to toe in black robes and doesn't shake hands with men.

The debate is growing sharper because the 275-member National Assembly that convened in mid March has to draft a constitution defining Islam's role in the country's laws.

The conservatives' power "might cause a problem in the future, especially when we will start debating women's rights such as dress code and whether they should wear the veil or not," said Ala Noori Talabani, a secular Kurdish lawmaker.

She said she's counting on a core of like-minded female members to counterbalance Islamic influence.

Of the 87 women parliamentarians, 46 are members of the Shiite clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, made up of parties seen as influenced by Iran.

But the victorious Shiites don't have a free hand. They need the vote of the largely secular Kurds, who oppose religious rule, to get the two-thirds majority necessary to pass legislation.

The rules of the January election required that every third candidate on each party's election list be a woman. But the results among women reflected the larger trend: the power of Iraq's Shiite majority, particularly its clerics' influence.

As a leading female politician since the fall of Saddam Hussein, al-Khafaji has survived two assassination attempts, one of which killed her 17-year-old son, Ahmed.

She insists Islamic Sharia law gives women more privileges than the civil code. Islam, she says, allows divorced women to keep their children until age 15 and to negotiate terms for divorce, polygamy and property ownership in their marriage contracts.

She derides "Western-minded women who came with the occupation, carrying weird ideas and wanting to teach young Iraqis that it's their right to have premarital sex. Iraqis with all their tribal traditions won't accept these women."

She means women such as Yanar Mohammed, a 44-year-old activist who likens Muslim women in robes to "black coffins walking in the streets." The robes signal "the beginning of another era of women's imprisonment," she said.

Like al-Khafaji, she has been receiving death threats since she organized a demonstration against Sharia law in Baghdad last year.

"I am not afraid of men who don't believe in women's rights," she said, "but rather, I'm terrified of women who by their own free will and under the pretext of democracy work against women's rights."

Al-Khafaji calls herself "an open Islamic technocrat" who believes Islam offers freedom of choice and "is against forcing things on people."

When asked about other aspects related to dress code or freedom to convert to other religions, she answered, "We have to look for secular laws that don't contradict with Islamic Sharia."

Opponents, however, fear conservatives will curtail women's marriage, divorce and inheritance rights and impose dress codes and sex segregation in public places. The southern city of Basra already operates under an unofficial Islamic code in which women are sometimes physically attacked for not being veiled.

Negotiations on an interim constitution last year provoked fierce debate over whether to call Islam the sole basis for legislation or one of several. Under U.S. influence, the "one of several" formula won out.

Shiite officials say they are searching for the middle ground.

"We neither want to establish a religious nor a secular state in Iraq," said Ali al-Dabagh of the main Shiite coalition United Iraqi Alliance. "We want a state that respects the identity of the Iraqi people and the identities of others."

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