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.
December 10, 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.”