Iraqis fight to preserve legal protection for young women

Proposed amendments to laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody would empower religious courts to override civil courts.
Sunday 10/12/2017
Iraqi women demonstrate to condemn violence against women in Baghdad

London - The vote to amend Iraq’s personal status law that sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 has been shelved for further de­liberation but the battle is far from won.

News of the withdrawal of draft amendments was delivered via the official Twitter account of the Brit­ish Embassy in Baghdad in late No­vember but has not been corrobo­rated by Iraqi state officials.

Despite the celebratory develop­ment, a statement published by UN representatives Pramila Patten and Virginia Gamba urged the “govern­ment of Iraq to reconsider” changes to the Personal Status Law.

Iraqi rights advocates accused members of parliament of seeking to cancel the laws that protect mi­nors from forced marriage and its associated harm, denouncing such moves as “criminal.” They argue that proposed changes to the Per­sonal Status Law would legalise sex­ual exploitation, polygamy and rape while doing away with choices that current legislation grants women.

Proposed amendments to laws governing marriage, divorce, inher­itance and child custody would em­power religious courts to override civil courts. The marriage of girls as young as 9 years old would no long­er be legally prohibited.

“The boys and girls of Iraq, al­ready victims of grave violations… are at risk of being deprived of their childhood,” warned UN representa­tives of the secretary-general on sexual violence in a statement pub­lished December 4.

In dispute is the consenting age for marriage and whether it agrees with the religious rulings under the Ja’fari school of Shia religious juris­prudence.

The genesis of Iraq’s sectarian order following the collapse of the former state in the wake of the United States’ 2003 invasion has eroded the rights women previous­ly enjoyed.

The setback is one of many dis­ruptions Iraqi women painstaking­ly fight. Couples could be treated as sectarian subjects defined not by the woman’s sect but by her hus­band’s.

The uproar this has provoked and steady mobilisation in resistance to it have yielded results that are in­conclusive.

“For now, there is good news,” said Hanaa Edwar, chairwoman of the Iraqi al-Amal Association, re­garding the vote being shelved.

Edwar explained that the amend­ments “have a history… reviving those first voiced in late Decem­ber 2003 by the late Abdelaziz al-Hakim, father to Ammar [al- Hakim]” — head of the Wisdom Party — an offshoot of the Islamic Supreme Council.

Between then and now, the is­sue remains unchanged. It’s not so much the implementation as it is the interpretation of Islamic reli­gious law as imagined and promot­ed by ruling Shia parties.

With mounting pressure from female rights activists and organi­sations, the attempt to abolish the code was abandoned in 2004, Ed­war said, similar to the situation now.

Edwar spoke of other strategies Islamist parties are using to prevent passing a bill against all forms of domestic violence, including pro­visions for the opening of women’s shelters.

“We have campaigned vigorously for three years but there are always excuses, repeated excuses from Is­lamists, to block the bill,” said Ed­war.

Moves to promote or repress the voice of women, in Edwar’s experi­ence, were underpinned by political calculations.

Weak institutions of state and the decentralisation of power and a tug of war between the prime minister and the council of representatives, in this latest saga, “helps us to un­derstand repeated calls to repeal the law,” she said.

The move has been discredited as a “marketing ploy” ahead of next year’s elections, “an advertise­ment,” Edwar called it, “to mobilise and secure [the] biggest electoral bloc.

“Without a doubt it’s a sectarian ploy designed to secure parliamen­tarians the votes they need,” she said

Child marriage is one of many shadows over the “new Iraq,” corre­sponding to rising levels of poverty in rural and urban dwellings.

“What disappoints me most,” Ed­war said, “is that the international community sides with those that look upon Iraqi society simply as it is conservative.”

UN Special Representative Jan Kubis called for “wider consulta­tion on the draft amendments… to ensure the full respect, protection and fulfilment of women and girls.”

“It’s not the time to let up,” Ed­war said, “not till we establish a legal environment that protects women.”