Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Iraqi women face old, new hurdles

As women seek representation in the country's government, a new wave of religious activism is posing a threat to their legal rights as well as their personal safety



Emboldened by the fall of former president Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women are pushing for political freedoms many of them have never enjoyed. But as they do, a rising tide of religious zeal threatens even the small victories they have won.

Ibtisam Ali and her sister, Raghad, have spearheaded a petition drive demanding a large percentage of seats for women in a new national assembly. But when Raghad, 25, tried to run for local office, the men at the candidate registration office informed her that women could not be candidates.

"I was frightened of the people in my neighborhood," Raghad said. "They looked at me so strangely, like I thought I was equal to men. I'm afraid of everything, from gossip to violence. It just kills the ambitions inside."

Women, secular and religious, from all ethnic groups, are running for office and demanding a fair share of representation in a country where they make up 60 percent of the population.

Yet new religious activism in Iraq has aggravated traditional attitudes about women's roles in society. The 18-member committee drafting the new constitution does not include any women, according to members of the Iraqi Governing Council. The council recently passed a nonbinding resolution calling for Shariah, or Islamic law, to govern family issues, which Iraq's justice minister said would damage the rights of Iraqi women.

And on the streets, more women, even little girls, are covering their heads and bodies, largely because of a fear of harassment and violence, said a range of secular and religious women.

"Women are waking up and getting it now," said Manal Omar, the country director in Iraq for the Washington-based group Women for Women International, which helps women in countries newly emerged from war.

"They realize that if they don't move now, they will pay the price for years and years to come," Omar said.

Return to public life

For 35 years, Iraqi women were able to get university degrees, study overseas and hold high-level professional posts. They were actually discouraged from wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf.

But in the 1990s, when Saddam embraced Islam as a source of credibility in the Arab world, his government clamped down on women. Although they continued to attend schools and hold jobs, they were no longer allowed to travel on their own.

In general, said Zaineb Salbi, an Iraqi-American who is a president of Women for Women International, women abandoned public life, leaving politics to men. More women started to cover themselves, although wearing hijab became the norm only after Saddam's ouster.

Many Iraqi women felt that with the arrival of the Americans, they would gain more rights. In Hilla, about 96km south of Baghdad, women are pressing for those rights, with the help of some men, and battling the anger roused by their efforts.

One recent afternoon, Ibtisam Ali stood before the staff of the Human Rights Association of Babylon asking for signatures on a petition demanding that 40 percent of seats in the new national assembly be set aside for women. The signature drive has spread across the country.

Ali, a tall, eloquent woman, was reluctant to push too hard after a man told her that women did not deserve equal representation because they were not equal to men.

"If, after all this, the governing council gives us 10 or 20 percent, that will be a blessing," she told the group.

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