Bill encouraging polygamy stirs controversy in Iraq
Baghdad - “It is an insult to Iraqi women,” said Iraqi women’s rights activist Hana Adour.
“It is rather a dignified way out for many widows and orphans,” retorted Kazem Jawad, an engineer.
The heated argument entangling Iraqi society was triggered by a proposal, introduced by Member of Parliament Jamila al-Obeidi, that encourages polygamy.
“The unprecedented numbers of widows, divorcees and unmarried women, who are estimated to exceed 4 million, prompted me to raise this proposition,” Obeidi said.
“It is a dangerous phenomenon that is threatening all Iraqi women who are increasingly vulnerable and in financially dangerous positions. They are being exploited in return for money and livelihood, a matter that we cannot but reject in our conservative oriental society.”
The bill, which Obeidi said would win enough votes in parliament to pass, would encourage men to marry more than one woman by providing financial incentives from the government, including a monthly allowance of about $300.
A 1959 Iraqi law permits polygamy for Muslim men under certain conditions, including permission from a judge and consent from the first wife. The husband must be deemed “financially capable” and give “legitimate reasons” for taking another spouse, such as having a first wife who is unable to bear children.
Obeidi explained that her proposal is mainly geared towards young widows and divorced women between the ages of 15 and 25 who might wish to marry a married man who can take care of them and protect them from exploitation.
“Polygamy is a necessity in Iraqi society to help reorganise it and make it more stable,” Obeidi said. “Women should accept each other as partners to protect themselves. We must renounce the one-woman mentality at the expense of our sisters.”
The proposed bill drew harsh criticism from women in the Iraqi parliament and the childhood affairs committee. Committee member Intisar al-Jabbouri played down the chances of the bill making it through parliament, arguing that the government cannot afford to take on new expenses.
“Such a law will only exacerbate the economic and social problems of the family and will not solve any of the women’s social problems,” Jabbouri said. “On the contrary, it will increase them and lead to the disintegration of the family.”
“The problem of widows in Iraq can be tackled in many other ways that safeguard their dignity and integrity, such as securing jobs and public positions for them or through the provision of loans and grants to enable them to start small businesses,” she added.
Adour agreed that polygamy was not the answer to the widows’ and divorced women’s social problems. “It will not lead to stability but rather to domestic violence in the families who are already struggling with economic pressure,” she said.
“The answer is in empowering women financially and providing them with job opportunities through vocational training to protect their dignity and rights guaranteed by the constitution. We do not need additional family problems, hatred and animosity,” Adour said.
She claimed the proposal was Obeidi’s way of “merely seeking electoral publicity”.
While Iraqi women’s rights groups were outraged by the bill, many Iraqi men have come out in support of Obeidi’s proposal.
“It will save a lot of widows and orphans,” said Jawad, 30. “The proposed bill is in line with Islamic sharia, and polygamy is allowed by religion as a solution for many problems. Taking care of orphans and widows is a duty for every Muslim, especially those who have the financial capacities and are willing to take more than one wife.”
The existing marriage law has long been criticised by women’s rights groups as outdated but the high number of widows caused by recent wars and the fight against the Islamic State has led to a surge in the practice in Iraq in recent years.
Activist Tayiba Mohammad, who is a chemist, blasted Obeidi’s “untimely and incomprehensible” proposal.
“How could she propose such a law at a time we need the parliament to pass laws for improving family living conditions and combating rampant unemployment among the youth?” Mohammad asked.
“Deteriorating security is the main reason for the hardships of Iraqi families. As such, we need strict laws to punish those behind the killing of Iraqis, not laws that would exacerbate hatred and dissent.”
Lawyer Aliaa al-Hosseini suggested that widows and divorced women should be prioritised for government jobs so they can empower themselves economically and socially.
“I believe Obeidi’s proposal is somehow motivated by electoral interest,” Hosseini said. “She is obviously addressing the widows in her governorate of Nineveh, which she represents in parliament.”