Kurdish Women Worry About Losing Rights

Women in Kurdistan fear Iraq’s new Shia elite will introduce religious law.

Kurdish Women Worry About Losing Rights

Women in Kurdistan fear Iraq’s new Shia elite will introduce religious law.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Kurdish women are worried their rights will be curtailed under an Iraqi government led by religious Shias.


The election results from Iraq’s historic election gave a slim majority in the transitional National Assembly to the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shia-led coalition backed by prominent cleric Ali al-Sistani. The assembly is charged with writing Iraq’s new constitution.


Some women’s activists are concerned that the Shia alliance will try to introduce elements of Islamic law, or sharia, into the constitution. Top Shia politicians have denied that they want an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq, but the largely secular Kurds remain sceptical.


Kurdish women have enjoyed more freedom than their Arab counterparts since their region fell out of Saddam Hussein’s control after the 1991 Gulf War. Iraqi Kurdistan functions as an autonomous zone within Iraq, controlled by a Kurdish government.


Women in the Kurdish region are active in dozens of organisations and publications that work to protect women’s rights. Through these organisations, they have pressured the Kurdish government to amend penal codes and personal status laws in favour of women.


In 2000, the president of the Kurdish region overturned a law that commuted the sentence of anyone convicted of so-called honour killings. In the same year, women won a legal victory when the government declared that polygamy would carry a three-year jail sentence and a heavy fine.


Alaa Talabani, head of the Women’s Empowerment Centre in Sulaimaniyah, said she believes those achievements are now at risk.


"We should not forget that Sistani's program for ruling Iraq states that equality between men and women is not to be written as an outstanding point in the constitution, because this was not mentioned in the holy Koran," she said.


A precedent for introducing religious law was set in 2003 when Iraqi’s Governing Council passed resolution 137, which called for sharia to govern issues such as inheritance, marriage and divorce. That law was overturned a few months later, after months of public protests. But Kurdish women fear that the new government will try to revive parts of 137 in their upcoming term.


One moderating influence is the interim law set in place under the guidance of the United States occupation government. It requires that the draft constitution be put to a public referendum in October. If two-thirds of registered voters in three provinces reject the draft, then it will go back to the assembly for revisions.


The interim law also requires that every third member of the transitional National Assembly be a woman. Shler Abdul-Majeed Rasheed, of the Kurdistan Communist Party, said the future of women’s rights in Iraq depends on the strength of those female representatives.


"Women’s organisations must arm their representation in the Iraqi Parliament with new and progressive programs," she said.


Many of the women in the new assembly come from the United Iraqi Alliance list and are linked to the Shia clerical schools in Najaf. That has raised alarm among secular women activists.


But some Kurdish women welcome more religious influence in Iraq’s affairs. The editor of the Komal newspaper, which is run by the Kurdistan Islamic Group, said women should not oppose any effort to make Islam the sole source of legislation for Iraq.


"All the programmes of Islam are at the service of women, and we must adhere to them as a commitment to our Muslim personality," said Suad Qadir Aziz.


Others point out that Iraq is a multi-religious society, home to Muslims, as well as Christians, Yazidis and other smaller sects.


Bekhal Abu-Bakir, of the Islamic Sisters Union, said people are simply misinterpreting what religious parties really want to achieve with their newfound power. She said they want Islam to be one of the sources for writing the constitution, but not the only.


"We support a civil government that can protect all the rights of all the components of the community with their ethnic and religious specialties," she said.


Some Kurdish women believe that helping the Kurds achieve federalism by writing their autonomy into the constitution is the best hope for preserving their rights. The Kurdish Alliance holds 75 seats in the assembly, the second largest share after the Shia alliance. By forming a coalition with other secular-minded parties, the Kurds could block efforts to introduce Islamic law and push through a measure guaranteeing Kurdish autonomy.


Deputy attorney general Bayan Isaa said if the women’s organisations observe any breaches of their rights in the future, they should apply pressure on the Kurdish parliament. The interim law guarantees the authority of the Kurdish legislature to enact laws for the autonomous region. Isaa said she hopes that legal autonomy stays in the new constitution.


She also warned that it would be dangerous for Kurdish women to tie themselves too closely to the fate of their Arab counterparts.


“The Kurdish community characteristics are different from those of the Arab community," Isaa said.


Talar Nadir is an IWPR trainee in Iraq.


Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
Support our journalists