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Political Representation Key Issue for Women

Women’s rights activists vow to fight for stronger political role.
By Haider al-Musawi
Human right activists attending a conference in Najaf unanimously agreed that Iraqi women have yet to win full rights and are still struggling three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Fighting to achieve the constitutionally-required quota of women in parliament, raising awareness about the importance of representation in the legislature, and reducing illiteracy rates were all deemed to be top priorities by the 300 delegates from over 40 women's organisations, both Islamic and secular.

This is believed to be the first conference focusing on women's concerns in the region; it was sponsored by civil society organisations in central and southern Iraq, where the population is mostly Shia.

"Restrictions on women remain from Saddam's regime," said Aqila al-Dahan, a female member of parliament. "Civil society organisations and clerics should educate people about [women's rights] and work to break these restrictions."

Many secular Iraqi women have expressed alarm at the growing conservative Islamic character of provinces such as Basra and Najaf, where Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime used to restrict Shia religious sentiment for fear of its political ramifications.

Iraq’s central and southern provinces are now under the control of Shia religious parties including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and leaders such as radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Clerics and Islamic groups had a strong presence at the April 30 and May 2 conference. Cleric Majid al-Amiri said Shia religious groups are striving to give women a stronger voice and regularly meet with female community leaders. He also asserted that secular and Islamic organisations cooperate in Najaf.

Acting culture minister Jabr al-Jabbouri was the highest-level government official at the conference, which did not include anyone from the women's affairs ministry. Jabbouri also represented the Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, at the conference.

"Women have suffered the most from customs and traditions designed to make them second-class citizens," said Jabbouri, who pledged that the culture ministry would lead the way in elevating the status of women, but did not say how.

Many women at the conference did not address religion so much as priority issues in general, including stronger political representation and enforcing the 25 per cent quota in parliament.

The role of women in Iraq began changing after the fall of Saddam as non-government groups sprouted and women became more active in politics. But female leaders have expressed frustration that they have been shut out of negotiations over the new Iraqi government, and fear they will not be awarded many of the ministerial jobs.

Human rights activist Sawsan al-Barak argued that at national level, women are simply occupying seats in the National Assembly, while at the grassroots, men use the poor security situation as a pretext to curb women's involvement in community affairs.

"Women’s representation in politics is just a formality," said Barak. "The proof is that political parties are giving [women] unimportant posts."

Some women said they would like to go back to a 1959 law, in force throughout the Baathist era, which gave liberal interpretations of Islamic law on matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody.

The “personal status” provisions in the new constitution state that individuals can choose how they want their personal legal affairs to be dealt with, according to their religious background. But the constitution also says that no legislation can run contrary to Islamic law. Female politicians are likely to push for the wording to be changed when the new parliament tackles constitutional amendments in the coming months.

Haider al-Musawi and Salam Jihad are IWPR trainee journalists based in Baghdad.

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