Thursday, October 18, 2012

Gender equality and democracy in Iraq

The recent attempted assassination of 14 year old Malala Yousufzai in Pakistan, merely because she advocated the right of women to receive an education, underscores the lack of gender equality in the Middle East (and indeed most parts of the world).  Of all the countries of the Middle East, Iraq can boast a legacy of being in the vanguard of countries which have tried to improve the status of women.  What is their status in Iraqi society today and how have they fared since the 2003 invasion which toppled Saddam Husayn's Ba'thist regime?

In January 1959, under the regime of Gen. 'Abd al-Karim Qasim, Iraq passed one of the most progressive personal status laws in the Middle East. Law 188 set the legal age of marriage at 18.  Women at age 15 were allowed to to marry if the judge considered it "an urgent necessity" and the woman had reached the "attainment of legal puberty" and "physical ability"  The consent of her legal guardian was also required  No women under the age of 15 could be forced to marry. Marriage was a legal contract which had to be agreed upon by both parties.

This personal status law retained some elements of Shari'a, such as women not receiving the same inheritance as men.  However, the law allowed women as well as men to initiate divorce and specified 8 conditions under which a woman had the right to divorce her husband. What was revolutionary about this law was its specificity, meaning that it defined very clearly the rights of all parties in the marriage contract, the conditions under which divorce was permissible, child custody, the requirements of the male to support his wife and family, inheritance and other matters related to male-female relations within the family.

Th 1959 Personal Status Law was attacked by clerics at the time as "anti-Islamic."  Nor were they pleased when Qasim indicated his support for women's rights by appointing the first woman minister in the Arab world, Naziha al-Dulaymi, as Minister of Municipalities, and expanded the opportunity for Iraqi women to receive a college education.

Women made progress under the Ba'thist regime.  That progress, however, had nothing to do with wanting to see women gain more rights.  Rather it reflected two goals.  First, the Ba'thist regime sought to reduce the power of the husband and by extension the family as a potential agent of political opposition.  Second, Saddam wanted to promote Iraqi industrialization and increase the size of the state bureaucracy.  He needed white collar and blue collar women workers to expand the labor pool.

To offset what he saw as possible opposition to his policies towards women, especially in the factory setting, Saddam imposed stringent sexual harassment laws.  Led by Manal Yunis, Saddam established the General Union of Iraqi Women which, while enforcing the Ba'thist regime's policies, was only an appendage of the state.

Because women were not allowed to form independent political organizations under Ba'th Party rule, the rights which they given in the 1970s were taken away in the 1990s following Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War of January 1991.  Once Iraq was subject to the most stringent UN sanctions regime ever imposed on a country in 1991, women were forced to leave their employment as the national economy collapsed. Seeking to prop up his regime through garnering male support, Saddam imposed conservative policies which stripped women of their rights.

While Iraq had received an award from UNESCO in 1989 for the rapid improvement in female literacy (even in remote rural villages which I visited during the 1980s women were forced to attend literacy centers), few Iraqi women in the 1990s received a meaningful education as the national education system collapsed as well.  Ironically, a mother raised in the 1980s could be fully literate while her daughter raised in the 1990s might be semi- or even illiterate.

After Saddam Husayn's overthrow, efforts were made to repeal the law by the US appointed Iraqi Governing Council in December 2003.  As many Iraqi women have commented to me, Iraq's male politicians can't agree on anything except stripping women of their rights.

One of the legacies of the US occupation of Iraq was a stipulation in its new constitution written and adopted in 2004 and 2005, that women must have at least 25% representation in the Council of Deputies (national parliament).   All the major political parties attempted to circumvent this rule by pushing for a "closed list" ballot system.  This system would prevent voters from voting for individual candidates and would hide the fact that female candidates were relatives or those who would support the dictates of the of the party in question's male leadership.

Iraqi women are a tough lot.  Now female members of parliament are speaking out against the complete male domination of the supposedly democratic system put in place after parliamentary elections in 2005.  In an article entitled, "Iraq's female parliamentarians complain about male domination (of politics)" (al-Bayan, Sept. 26), women politicians are working to force the Council of Delegates leadership to appoint a woman to the ninth (and final) seat on the newly appointed High Electoral Commission which oversees national elections.

These women argue that all of Iraq's main ethnoconfessional groups are represented as well as some of Iraq's minorities (either a Christian or Turkmen has been slated to receive the 9th seat).  With women constituting 65% of Iraq's population (reflecting the continued violence since 1980 with the onset of the 8 year Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf war, the March 1991 uprising (Intifada), and the sectarian violence of 2003-2008), female parliamentarians point out that is is shameful that women are not better represented in Iraq's current political structure and institutions.

Many Iraqi families are headed by women who are single parents and many do not have the skills to find gainful employment.  Thus the struggle being fought by Iraqi women in parliament has ramifications for Iraqi women nationally.

Independent parliament member Sufia Suhayl points out that women are not represented in Iraq's executive, legislative and judicial branches (even though the first female judge in Iraq was appointed in 1967).  She and other female parliamentarians argue that even women who do hold office face a process of marginalization (tahmish) which runs counter to Iraq's constitution which stipulates that "women should participate in all aspects of Iraq's political process."  The political pressure being exerted by female members of parliament has led some male parliamentarians to propose that a female Turkmen should become the 9th member of the High Electoral Commission.

We may criticize the current government of Nuri al-Maliki for failing to implement the democratic agenda which he promised when he retained his position as prime minister after the March 2010 national parliament elections.  Despite Iraq's current democracy deficit, women at present are certainly in a better position politically than they were in the 1990s under Ba'thist rule.

Women in Iraq today can organize and have opportunities to make their discontent known to the Iraqi populace at large whether through the print media, television, or the Internet.  It would have been unheard of for women to threaten to boycott parliament and take their complaints to court under Saddam Husayn's regime.  While their new freedoms don't guarantee that they will be successful in their goals, they are sending a very important message to the women of their generation and to young Iraqi women as well.

That message is that power is never freely given.  The core component of any democracy is contestation.  Organization and (peaceful) struggle are keys to success in any democracy. That Iraqi women are using the institutions of government to press forward their agenda of gender equality is a sign that Iraq's democracy movement is still struggling against one of the core components of authoritarianism, namely patriarchal rule.

The "bottom line" is that no country which excludes over 50% of its population (in Iraq women are closer to 65% of the population) can refer to itself as a democracy.