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Iraqi women eye Islamic law

The majority United Iraqi Alliance supports sharia.

By Jill CarrollContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2005



BAGHDAD

Covered in layers of flowing black fabric that extend to the tips of her gloved hands, Jenan al-Ubaedy knows her first priority as one of some 90 women who will sit in the national assembly: implementing Islamic law.

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She is quick to tick off what sharia will mean for married women. "[The husband] can beat his wife but not in a forceful way, leaving no mark. If he should leave a mark, he will pay," she says of a system she supports. "He can beat her when she is not obeying him in his rights. We want her to be educated enough that she will not force him to beat her, and if he beats her with no right, we want her to be strong enough to go to the police."

Broadening support for sharia may not have been the anticipated outcome of the US mandate that women make up one third of the national assembly. But Dr. Ubaedy's vision is shared by many members of the United Iraqi Alliance, a list of religious Shiite candidates that won a majority of seats. She says the women on the UIA list are meeting now to coordinate their agendas and reach out to women from other parties.

How their presence translates into action not only will shape women's rights in Iraq but goes to the heart of how much religion will dictate law.

"When you have a fairly large number of women [in a legislature], it brings women's issues to the forefront," says Marina Ottaway, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "On the other hand, [in Iraq] you have a majority of women elected from religious political parties, and this process will take place in the midst of discussions of the constitution and role of Islam in the constitution."

Ubaedy, a pediatrician who is married and has four daughters, offers a nuanced argument for sharia. She plans to encourage women to wear the hijab and focus on nurturing their families. At the same time, she says, she will fight for salary equity, paid maternity leave, and reduced work hours for pregnant women.

But whether her voice and those of other women will be heard - especially if their views are unpopular - is uncertain. Assembly members opposed to strict Islamic views may have to rely on secular groups like the Kurds and supporters of Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to support them as lawmakers sit down to draft a new constitution.

After a disappointing showing in the election, Mr. Allawi made a splash this week with an aggressive bid to remain prime minister. He has said he is trying to form a coalition that will be able to overpower the UIA. But the strategy would require a hefty chunk of UIA members to defect from their choice of Ibrahim al-Jaafari. It would also need the support of the 135 members of the assembly - including the increasingly assertive Kurds - who are not in the UIA. The push is likely to result in offers of top government positions to Allawi's cohort in exchange for backing down.

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