Unregistered marriages a trap for Iraqi women
Baghdad - “I am lost myself but I will not allow that my daughter be lost, too.” With these words, Laila described the suffering and disarray caused by the inability to establish her kinship to her daughter because her marriage was never registered in Iraqi civil status courts.
The 25-year-old woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, did not realise the significance of this until her husband was killed in an explosion a year after they were married. She was 15.
“The marriage was concluded by the sayyed (Muslim cleric) of the town because I was underage. When my husband died I was left [with a child] without a provider and without papers,” Laila added.
She said she could neither find the marriage contract that her husband had kept with him nor the cleric who concluded it, which caused many problems, including not being able to register the girl in school.
“I resorted to the judicial authorities who requested complicated procedures to prove my relationship to my daughter in the absence of any authentication of my marriage. But I will insist that my daughter gets all her rights whatever it will cost me,” Laila vowed.
The trend of unregistered marriages in Iraq has been growing since 2003, following the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’ath regime and the rise of Islamic parties that gave Muslim clerics power to override existing social status laws.
Many Iraqi marriages are being conducted by clerics and considered as legal in religious settings and at the community level, though the unions are neither registered nor recognised by civil law.
Social activists decry the Islamic parties’ moves as attempts to curtail women’s rights in education, employment and marriage in contradiction with Iraqi laws, the constitution and international conventions to which Iraq is a signatory.
Children born from unregistered unions are the main victims of the measures. Because couples must show an official marriage certificate to receive obstetric care, according to the law, the children of unregistered marriages do not receive birth certificates and thus are not eligible for state assistance, including rations, health care or public education. Poverty and the ignorance of girls’ parents are the main reasons behind the increasing number of unlawful unions, according to lawyer Alia Hosni.
“Many give their daughters up for early marriage as a way of reducing the number of mouths to feed. They are just unaware of the dire consequences of contracting such unions which deprive their daughters of their rights,” Hosni said.
“Underage marriages and taking a second wife, which are concluded by clerics, constitute the largest number of unions that are not recorded in civil status courts,” Hosni said, noting that thousands of lawsuits have been filed by women seeking ratification of their marriages.
The most difficult part is establishing the parentage of children born in those marriages, especially when the wives are abandoned by their husbands. “Women have been coming to court without any paper confirming their union, necessitating many complicated procedures that might not succeed and thus deprive them and their children of any rights,” Hosni added.
However, in the case in which the husband or the in-law family has denied the union, the law has allowed authentication of children’s lineage through forensic medicine and matching of tissue from the parents, the lawyer pointed out.
Legal expert Wassan al-Otabi said: “Some 4,000 lawsuits [over the unions] have been filed only in October, at one court in Atfiya.
“The civil status law deems marriages outside civil courts as a punishable crime, sanctioned by six months in prison for men and no less than three years imprisonment for those who contract a second unlawful marriage.”
Social activist Dalal Rabii described the expanding trend as “a catastrophe” tearing the fabric of Iraqi society. “Many such unions concluded by clerics do not even meet marital requirements. We have come across cases in which the girls had no idea about the date of their marriages or the cleric who conducted them and this makes it even more difficult to help them prove their kin to their children,” Rabii said.
She blasted the government for being permissive with the clerics who “expropriated” the civic law. “Clerics get 150,000 Iraqi dinars ($126) for every contract. For them it has become a business more than anything else,”Rabii said.
Technically, the Iraqi civil code’s personal status law offers protection for young girls by forbidding under-age (under 18) marriage. Exceptions are made for girls and boys aged 15- 18 if they have the approval of their legal guardian and the judge before marrying. However, local clerics often ignore the law.
Even for women over 18, the state will not recognise marriage if not registered by civil authorities. While their relationships are seen as official at the community level, legally they are considered to be single and have no protection, in the event of spousal abandonment in the marriage is not registered.
Shia cleric Sheikh Jawad al-Khalisi argued that many fail to register the marriages because they only recognise the legitimacy of sharia rather than the civil law. “The clergy approves the registration of unions in order to safeguard the civic rights of both parties, but does not forbid underage marriages if the girls are physically and mentally mature,” he said.
The Iraqi government has launched an awareness campaign to encourage couples to register their unions. “Legal clinics providing free consultations and counselling have been established in all districts. We have succeeded in registering 885 unions out of 1,987 filed by women and 491 cases out of 1,152 filed by men so far,” noted Haidar Majid, a government official.