Bill encouraging polygamy stirs controversy in Iraq

Sunday 09/04/2017
Vulnerable in war. Women work on sewing machines at a widows’ training and development centre in Baghdad. (Reuters)

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.”