WASHINGTON — Whether or not the Iraqi constitution passes on Oct. 15, one thing is clear: Iraq will continue to be dominated by religiously motivated, well-organized Shiite political parties, determined to implement Islamic law and enforce social conservatism throughout society.
In this environment, it is inevitable that many rights taken for granted by Iraqi women will come under increasing challenge. Advocates pushing a secular agenda risk marginalization, or worse. Instead, those promoting women's rights may be better served if they adopt a language of rights within an Islamic framework - a strategy that could prove to be both more legitimate and effective within Iraq's religiously charged context.
The good news for Iraqi women is that they have one of the highest levels of political representation in the world (31 percent), driven by a constitutionally mandated quota introduced in 2004. The bad news is that Iraq's female parliamentarians are as deeply divided as society as a whole. The gap between religious conservatives and secular women seems unbridgeable. Yet, despite ideological differences they do share many issues of concern, including furthering women's political participation, economic empowerment, and education.
In Iran, following the Islamic revolution in 1979, women saw dramatic setbacks in their legal rights. Secular efforts to claw back those rights largely failed, but religious feminist leaders emerged in the 1990s to advance theological justifications for legal improvements for women. This broader women's movement has achieved some gains over time, particularly in the sensitive area of family law.
Iraqi women should learn from the Iranian example and build coalitions across the ideological spectrum and promote more progressive Islamic jurisprudence. One way to do this is to set up dialogue groups between Shiite and Sunni women to discuss various interpretations of the sharia (Islamic law) governing personal status laws. Religious scholars and international Islamic groups, such as Sisters in Islam, can be invited to join and inform the discussions. These can be modeled around the Islamic circles, or halaqat, initiated by Egyptian women in the 1990s, where women gather in their communities to discuss religion.
Various perspectives and interpretations of women's rights under the sharia should be discussed and widely disseminated through media networks and channels, such as Radio Mahaba (an Iraqi station dedicated to raising awareness on women's rights), and women-oriented publications similar to the influential feminist press in Iran.
For its part, the US can support women in Iraq in ways that are effective yet culturally nonthreatening. Over the past two years, the US has allocated funds for the political education of women. Some of this money has already been used for voter education and leadership training for electoral candidates. Once the constitution is approved, the US government should work with local groups to educate women on various provisions of the constitution. A recent Freedom House report assessing women's rights in 17 Arab countries found that all except Saudi Arabia have constitutions that mandate equality between men and women. However, little effort is made to inform women of the laws that protect them in their own constitution.
The US should also back its female-friendly rhetoric with targeted funding. The coming year will be crucial for Iraqi women, as a new parliament is elected with the power to write the laws that will shape the country for the next generation. Women's groups and programs designed to build the capacity of women leaders should be given high priority in US government funding allocations, specifically in the area of rule of law. The USAID-supported legal education program at the University of Baghdad, where women make up 40 percent of participants in recent rule-of-law seminars, should be expanded to other universities and cities across Iraq. Private Muslim-American groups should consider funding a women's religious studies department at Baghdad University, where the next generation of female muftis or jurists can be developed. Just as female graduates of the Islamic studies program at Al-Azhar in Cairo are now issuing fatwas (religious edicts) about issues pertaining to daily life in accordance with sharia, Iraqi women should be given the opportunity to achieve religious authority.
Over the next few years, as Iraq takes its first steps toward becoming an Islamic democracy, the role women play in the emerging political, social, and economic order will directly determine the sustainability of Iraq's transition. If America truly wants to help bring freedom to the women of Iraq, it should provide both secular and religious advocates of women's rights with the platform and the resources they need.
• Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of its US Foreign Policy and Women program. Mehlaqa Samdani is a CFR research associate.