Image: Salama al-Khafaji
Wathiq Khuzaie  /  Pool via AP file
Unlike many other Iraqi women, Salama al-Khafaji of the United Iraqi Alliance supports following Islamic codes, which could deprive women of equal inheritance rights.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/2/2005 1:53:07 PM ET 2005-08-02T17:53:07

Iraqi women leaders met the U.S. ambassador on Tuesday in an effort to pressure politicians framing Iraq's new constitution not to restrict women's rights.

The position of women in Iraqi politics and society is one of the most contentious issues facing the panel drafting the constitution, which must be completed by an Aug. 15 deadline.

Many Iraqi women's groups fear Islamic law, which is likely to be enshrined as a main source of legislation, will be used to limit their rights. The United States shares their concern.

"Iraq cannot achieve all it can if it does not allow all its citizens ... to contribute fully to building this new Iraq," ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who previously served as the U.S. envoy in Afghanistan, told reporters after meeting the women.

"The eyes of the world are on Iraq ... The world will take note of what course Iraq has selected for itself," he said, denying there was any American pressure on Iraq over the issue.

Restrictions would undermine U.S. reasons for war
Any restrictions on women brought in by the authorities would be an embarrassment to Washington, which cited democracy and human rights as one reason for its 2003 invasion.

Iraq's first government after Saddam Hussein's overthrow was led by a secular prime minister, but the current government, elected in January, is dominated by Shiite Islamists.

Despite the autocracy and rights abuse Iraqis suffered under two decades of rule by Saddam, his Baath party's secular Arab nationalist ideology generally promoted equal rights.

Buthaina al-Suhail of the Iraqi Family Association said after meeting Khalilzad she was sure the United States could pressure the panel, which includes some secular Kurds and Arabs as well as religious Shiite Muslims, to listen to them.

"Islam should be a source of law, not the main source of law," she said. "America has the power all over the world ...the panel will listen."

Equal inheritance?
Rend Rahim, Iraq's ambassador to Washington, said this week she feared that if Islam was made the sole source of law — as many influential Shiite clerics want — women would be hostage to "arbitrary interpretations" of Islam. Fears are growing that women would lose rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance.

Most worrying for women's groups has been the section on civil rights in the draft constitution, which some feel would significantly roll back women's rights under a 1959 civil law enacted by a secular regime.

Under Sharia law, women would inherit only half of what men receive. In issues of marriage and divorce, women would be at a significant disadvantage since only men would have the legal power to initiate divorces.

But some of the women meeting Khalilzad are advocates of changing family law to follow Islamic sharia codes as much as possible.

Some rights for women would create ‘big mess’
"We have a lot of tribal areas where they don't like women having the same rights as men in inheritance. If you put this (in law) you would have a big mess in the country," Salama al-Khafaji, a member of the ruling Shiite grouping, the United Iraqi Alliance, told Reuters.

"Iraqi society does not accept that a woman should be outside the house at night in jobs with night shifts. We've got used to it in hospitals but we reject it in other facilities," she said, arguing that social mores were naturally conservative.

Khafaji said the real struggle was to ensure the government does not sideline women from positions of power.

"I support there being a quota of at least 25 percent women in the national assembly, and I also support quotas for women in the executive (cabinet) and judiciary," she said.

"Iraqi women have the ability to run the country and they did this successfully during the old regime."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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