Lesley Abdela focusses on the continuing battle for womens’ rights in pre- and post-Saddam Iraq:
Insurgents and religious extremists use rape, acid and assassination to force Iraqi women to wear the veil – the symbol of submission, first signal of further repression to come. Many Iraqi women have never worn the scarf. Now, dead bodies of girls and women are found in rivers and on waste ground with a veil tied around the head, as a message.
As well as unveiled women, key targets are those who wear make-up, who are well educated and in the professions, and who work with organisations connected with the coalition forces.
Political Islamists target universities in particular. A male university professor told me about a bright, highly intelligent young student from Babylon University, Hilla, south of Baghdad. She had never worn the scarf. Despite death threats to compel her to wear it, she refused to do so and continued to attend university. She was raped and murdered. The professor spoke of the mess made of her body. He has since told his daughter she must either wear a scarf or leave university. He doesn’t want her to wear the scarf nor does he want her to leave university, but he is terrified for her life.
It was not always like this. In the pre-Saddam period, women had opportunities for limited social progress. In 1948, Iraq had been one of the first countries in the middle east to have a woman judge; in 1959, Nazila al-Dulaima (of the Iraqi Communist party) became one of the first female government ministers in the Arabian peninsula. Even under Saddam’s regime, women were free to choose whether to wear western-style dress and make-up or the black abaya. Many wore western dress in their jobs for government departments and in schools and universities.
The ferocious repression of political dissent under the Saddam Hussein regime, which consolidated its rule, fell on women and men equally, but particular laws (such as Law 101) – under which (alleged) prostitution was punishable by death – impacted particularly on women. Hundreds of women dissidents and the partners, mothers, sisters and daughters of male dissidents were branded prostitutes and beheaded
On 26 June 2005, I took part in a conference called “Our Constitution, Our Future”. Organised by the international NGO Women for Women, and judiciously situated outside Iraq, on the Jordanian shores of the Dead Sea, it focused on how best to replace restrictive laws and practices so the new constitution conforms to international agreements, particularly the jewel in the crown, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). Around 60 Iraqi men and women parliamentarians, academics, activists and members of the drafting committee for the constitution risked their lives to attend.
The division was clear even at the conference: progressive women and men want a secular constitution. More extreme religious groups (which include women) want Islamic Shari’a law.
A parallel legal system, in which citizens can opt either for religious or civil law, is one potential compromise. This would not be a unique and untried solution: in Lebanon Shi’a women have different rights from Christian women, Sunni women from Shi’a and Christians; Palestinians in Israel can choose to go to the civil court or to the Shari’a court.