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Kurdish Leaders Debate Polygamy Ban

Proposed law reignites long-standing debate among Kurds about whether polygamy hurts or helps women.
By Najeeba Mohammad
Iraqi Kurdistan's parliament is challenging social and religious tradition by considering legislation that would officially ban polygamy in this northern region, in a move that has divided some Kurdish political leaders and women's groups.

According to Iraqi legislation concerning the individual, which is largely derived from Islamic law, men can be married to as many as to four women at the same time.

The proposed legislation would make the practice illegal in Iraqi Kurdistan, and has reignited a long-standing debate among Kurds about whether polygamy hurts or helps women, and whether legal restrictions would stop multiple marriages.

"It has become a part of the culture," said Roonak Faraj, head of the Women's Media and Cultural Centre in Sulaimaniyah. Faraj is one of many women's rights activists and political leaders who support a ban on polygamy, but she does not believe the law will work unless it is accompanied by an awareness campaign.

Polygamy is a traditional practice in Iraq that is supported by many clerics, leaders and citizens, both men and women. At the same time, other politicians and women's groups have fought against the practice for years and argue that it is time to outlaw the tradition.

From 1994 to 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan was divided into two administrations. In Sulaimaniyah, the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, banned polygamy. However, many polygamists from the area simply married in the areas run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which allowed multiple unions.

The two administrations were unified in 2005 and are now drafting laws to cover the three provinces in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Under the proposed law, men who married more than one wife would be fined the equivalent of 6,000 US dollars and face three to five years in prison, while women who became second, third or fourth wives would face a 3,000 dollar fine. Clerics who issue licenses for such marriages would also be punished, although legislators have not determined yet what the penalties would be.

The law would also give women the same inheritance rights as men, and accord equal value to legal testimony given by women. Current Iraqi legislation follows Islamic law by giving women a lesser share in inheritance, while the testimony of one man is worth that of two women in court.

However, these provisions have not resulted in as much public controversy as the proposed change in the polygamy statute.

"I believe polygamy should be totally banned," said Arez Abdullah, a PUK member of parliament who has pushed for women's rights in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The current laws, Abdullah said, "are not in line with human rights principles or the protection of women".

But advocates of the right to polygamy argue that in Iraq, multiple marriages help women with limited options gain financial support or freedom from their own families. Women rarely live on their own in Iraq, and many women in their mid-thirties or older say it is difficult to find an unmarried man.

Sheeran Ali, from Chamchamal, south of Sulaimaniyah, wants to get married but does not believe that at 37, she can find an unwed husband. The Iraqi regime arrested her older brother during the Anfal campaign of the Eighties, when tens of thousands of Kurds went missing following a crackdown by Iraqi forces.

Tradition dictates that older siblings should marry before their younger brothers and sisters, so Sheeran waited for her brother to come back. He never did. After Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003, mass graves were found containing Anfal victims, and many families accepted that their loved ones were dead.

"In this society, people tend to look down at unmarried women," said Sheeran. "I'm ready to marry a married man because I don't want to hear the demeaning comments. I have the right to be a mother like any woman."

According to Kharaman Mohammad, a media officer with the Kurdistan Islamic Sisters’ Union, which opposes the bill, "Women will be the first victims of a total ban on polygamy. We don't support a total ban on polygamy. We want to impose regulations and limitations on how it is practiced."

Mohammad said polygamy should be allowed under extenuating, unforeseen circumstances that occur after a couple get married, such as if the wife becomes chronically ill or is unable to bear children.

Even those who support the ban admit that it will be difficult to enforce because Iraqi national law will continue to allow polygamy. Under Iraqi law, judges can approve a polygamous marriage if the husband demonstrates that he can provide for his wives and that the union is legal. They can also refuse to sanction polygamist unions if they believe the wives will not be treated equally.

Khalil Ibrahim, a member of the Kurdistan parliament, said that even if the law is passed, polygamists will still be able to marry outside the three Kurdish provinces.

"Even if this law is passed, it won't be implemented," he said.

Ibrahim is a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union party which opposes the ban, but supports a law requiring that wives must give their consent before their husbands can enter into additional marriages.

Kwestan Mohammad, who heads the committee to defend women's rights in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament, said the penalties envisaged in the draft law were severe enough to deter people from ignoring the ban.

"I'm certain the law will be successful," she said. "No man will be prepared to serve three years in prison for marrying a second wife."

Najeeba Mohammad is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

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