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Secret Divorces Underline Women's Powerlessness

Men are illegally divorcing their wives without them knowing.
By Aso Akram

Life for 38 year old Lana has no meaning since her husband of 18 years informed her that he'd divorced her five months earlier. Lana lived with her husband during those months, so she is shocked to hear the news.

"My eyes filled with tears, my knees buckled and I was half paralysed," said Lana, who is one of the many women divorced without their knowledge in Iraq.

Personal status laws dictate that both husband and wife must attend court for a divorce to be granted, but the laws are often violated and men are handed separation without their wives' involvement.

Dalia, 37, is another woman who wasn't involved in the process. "My divorce case is very strange. I don't know why I was divorced," she said.

The laws also allow women to file for divorce in special circumstances – including serious abuse – but in practice the cultural, social and religious inequalities here make this rare.

Lawyer and women's activist Sroosht Janab says the laws are not the only problem, the interpretation of them is disadvantaging women too, "The problem here is not only with legislation, but with the lawyers who put it into practice. It should give rights to those entitled to them and that's not the way it works."

Janab has been lobbying for reform of the judicial process throughout the country to no avail, "We have not been able to do anything."

But with the drafting of the new constitution due to begin in the country's new National Assembly, there is an opportunity to enshrine women's equality and create change.

Alaa Talabani, head of the Women's Empowerment Centre, cautions that political agendas shouldn't influence the debate, "The law must be above parties and their leadership issues."

However, the presence of a Shia majority in parliament, many of whose members are conservative in outlook, has raised concerns among women's groups that parts of Islamic law, or sharia, could be introduced into the constitution.

The largely secular Kurds, who won the second highest vote in January's election and are negotiating with the Shia to form a national coalition government, could counter the conservatives.

Kurdistan has operated as an autonomous region since the 1991 Kurdish uprising that repelled Saddam Hussein's forces and women here have enjoyed greater freedoms in that time.

The National Assembly also contains twenty-six women but Talabani says their gender doesn't guarantee that they will champion women's causes, as many of those from central and southern areas are themselves quite conservative and traditional.

Talabani told IWPR said there was a need to educate men about women’s rights, "Appointing women judges is not a solution. Men should be trained in equality and the treatment of women in a legal manner."

Meanwhile, Lana dreams of a day when she will be treated equally before the courts and bring a case against her ex-husband.

She wants him to be brought to account for living with her for the five months after he secretly got a divorce.

Lana's deep sense of shame means that she is prepared to be patient for justice, "I will demand my rights within the laws, even if I am drawing my last breath."

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

Aso Akram is an IWPR trainee journalist in Suliamaniyah. This article first appeared in IWPR's Iraqi Crisis Report No. 118, 25-Mar-05.

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