Women Seek Rights Pledge From Politicians

Campaign group encourages future lawmakers to commit themselves to legislation that preserves women’s constitutional rights.

Women Seek Rights Pledge From Politicians

Campaign group encourages future lawmakers to commit themselves to legislation that preserves women’s constitutional rights.

Thursday, 8 December, 2005
A group of prominent women is pressing politicians to swear that they will support human and women's rights in drafting laws.

The Iraqi Pledge campaign was conceived by 12 women leaders who are concerned that civil rights should be upheld in future legislation.

The campaign began in October, shortly after voters approved Iraq's new constitution. Organisers said 60 politicians and 50 civil society and political organisations had signed the pledge to ensure that any new laws are in line with the constitution, and to make human rights a top priority.

"There are 55 articles of the constitution that will regulate laws that have yet to be drafted," said Rand Raheem, the former Iraqi ambassador to the United States under the post-Saddam Hussein transitional government of Ayad Allawi. "The laws that are issued will determine whether the constitution is being implemented, or whether it has been rendered null and void."

The alliance is focusing on those constitutional provisions that could affect women, such as ensuring civil courts remain an option for marriage, divorce and child custody cases, but the organisers insist the campaign stands for the rights of all citizens.

The 12 women and their supporters represent a diversity of political viewpoints, and include Sunnis, Shias, Arabs and Kurds, both secular and religious.

"We all agree on rights, regardless of our political leanings," said Safya Suhail, the Iraqi ambassador to Cairo.

"We do not represent any political party, and therefore we don't have a set ideology," added Baskal Ishua, one of the campaigners. "We believe in human rights, and we are asking for them."

The campaign is pushing for the implementation of several constitutional articles, said Azhar al-Sheikhli, the minister of women's affairs who trained as a lawyer.

They include Article 36, which ensures freedom of speech, the press and assembly, as long as it does not harm public morals. The Iraqi Pledge wants the judiciary to rule on what constitutes public morality if the definition is disputed.

Iraqi Pledge also wants to ensure that Iraqis have a choice regarding the so-called personal status law. Article 39 of the constitution declares that each individual is free to choose whether religious or civil courts should rule on their personal affairs, such as marriage and divorce.

The courts have been a key issue for secularists and rights advocates since the constitution was first debated nearly a year ago. Campaign members want guarantees that religious courts will not be the only option. They acknowledge that Islamic law has some influence on Iraqi legislation, but say a balance is maintained.

"Islam is very important to this society, and we will not interfere with it," said Ahlam al-Jabri, a lawyer and a member of the alliance, adding that legislation should "solve problems rather than exacerbate those that exist already ".

Article 89 establishes a supreme court, which will be appointed by judicial experts. The campaigners want judges from the religious law tradition and the secular legal system to have equal weight on the court. They are also calling for a 25 per cent quota for women in the supreme court, just as is the case for parliament.

They group will also be closely watching any laws that relate to Article 99, which deals with the independence of the national human rights committee and the election commission, and Article 16, which guarantees equal opportunities for all Iraqis.

Prominent politicians from a wide range of ideological standpoints have signed the pledge. They include National Assembly speaker Hachim al-Hasani; Fuad Masum, chief of the Kurdish Alliance list; Abdul-Hamid Majeed Musa, secretary-general of the Communist Party and a member of the National Assembly; Umma Party president Mithal al-Alusi; and Ala al-Maki from the Iraqi Islamic Party.

"As religious men, we support these principles," said Khalid al-Shaamari, a cleric and secretary-general of the Al-Fazila Party's student committee, who has signed the pledge. "We are all trying to rid [Iraq] of oppression, whether we have Islamic or liberal leanings."

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, who is leading the Iraqi National Congress list in the upcoming parliamentary elections, recently signed up to the campaign, and last week made a strong speech in favour of women's and civil rights.

Campaigners are encouraging voters to support those candidates who sign the pledge.

While admitting that the promises cannot be enforced, they say they will track the records of signatories after the December 15 parliamentary election.

National Assembly members, who will hold their seats for four years, will produce the first legislation to be based on the new constitution.

"This is difficult work, and the laws have not been enacted yet," said Baskal Ishwa, a former minister of immigration. "But we will expend all our energy on educating all [Iraqis] about their importance."

Raghad Ali is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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