Sop to Iraqi Clerics?

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In the power struggle for religious influence in Iraq's new government, a compromise being contemplated by some of Iraq's influential clerics would be detrimental to women's rights in that country.

If Shiite religious leaders can't infuse Islam in Iraq's new constitution, then they reportedly want Koranic law, or sharia, to govern in the narrower realm of personal life.

Widespread - and widely interpreted - in the Muslim world, sharia,even on a personal level, is of no small consequence. It puts women at a disadvantage in important aspects of marriage, divorce, and inheritance law, as well as in cases of violence against them.

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One of President Bush's objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq is to strengthen women's rights. In Iraq, for instance, every third slot on the candidate lists in the Jan. 30 elections was reserved for a woman - reflecting recent "set-aside" practices in such Muslim countries as Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia. The goal is to have females make up at least 25 percent of the national assembly, whose main job is to appoint a new government and write a constitution.

But one of the risks of Iraqi self- determination is that a new Iraq may not reflect Western values. Even occupying a quarter of the assembly's seats might not give women enough say, and the women candidates, as reported before the still-to-be-finalized election, hold diverging views on sharia.

Under the secular rule of Saddam Hussein, women enjoyed substantially more rights than in other Middle East countries. Iraq's 1970 constitution guaranteed them equal rights and specifically allowed them to vote, go to school, run for political office, and own property. But their position in society deteriorated rapidly after the Gulf War, as UN sanctions disproportionately affected them, and Saddam tightened restrictions on women to appease conservative religious groups and tribes.

In December 2003, the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council voted to replace a relatively secular family law with sharia. Women took to the streets in protest, and former US administrator Paul Bremer vetoed the decision. This time there is no Paul Bremer to intervene. If Iraqi women and their male compatriots want to preserve women's rights, they'll have to fight for those themselves.

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