Shiite women knock at mosque door

More Baghdad mosques hold religious classes for women, who want to study their Islamic rights.

Inside a mosque in the Shiite slum of Hurriya, protected from male eyes by a ragged curtain, females ages 4 to 54 are absorbing the fundamentals of Islamic feminism.

"I'm going to tell you something; don't quarrel with your men when you go home," says instructor Hayriye Misht, mischievously raising her index finger. "The contract that we have for marriage is to go to bed only. This is the basic contract. But there is something else in Islam: whatever else a wife does - cleaning the house, breastfeeding her children - she should get paid."

As the women giggle incredulously, Ms. Misht adds that women now do these things for free, "because it is their duty."

Usually this mosque is full of men. But in recent months, a handful of Shiite mosques in Baghdad have begun holding religious classes for women. Like a Muslim Sunday school, the classes teach the basics of Islam according to Shiite doctrine. Some also offer literacy training. For Iraq's Shiite women, long cloistered from public life, they hold out the promise of something even sweeter: a tentative independence.

"My husband is very religious, and he doesn't allow me to do very much," says a self-assured student who wishes to be known simply as Umm Ali, or mother of Ali. "But when he heard about this, he approved."

In class, Umm Ali raises her hand. "If my husband tells me not to do anything, even go to visit a mosque, should I obey him?" she asks

"Yes, you should obey him in anything he asks, unless it's against God," replies Misht. "For example, if he's pushing you not to fast in Ramadan."

Umm Ali persists. "A friend of mine, her husband is always arguing with her," she says. "She wants to go pray, to read the Koran, and her husband is not allowing her to do that. Is that permitted under the Islamic religion?" It is not, Misht tells her.

Encouraged, another woman goes straight to the point: "If my husband is not allowing me to pray, then can I get divorced?"

In Shiism, women have more freedom than in Sunni Islam - in theory. But under Saddam Hussein, public schools were forbidden from teaching anything but government-approved Sunni doctrine. Those who taught Shiite principles in private places, even at home, risked imprisonment or death.

During this time, Shiite women were doubly oppressed: unable to worship freely, they were also often barred from public life by overprotective menfolk. Many of them simply dropped out of sight. "I could have studied computer science, but my husband didn't agree," says Umm Ali. "Because of the circumstances around us in the country - people were not committed to religion - I didn't argue."

Often, they turned to religion for comfort. But while Shiite men could study in hawzas, Shiite religious academies, the women had to try their luck with Sunni-run public seminaries, which were loath to admit them.

"For years, I went to the law college and tried to give them my papers, but they wouldn't let me study," says Bushra Abed Ghareeb, a poet who wants to study sharia, Islamic law. "I even tried the fine-arts college, and they refused me."

When the regime fell, Shiite women - the plurality of Iraq's population - eagerly joined the national religious awakening. Mothers began teaching daughters at home. Prominent clerics began sending imams to mosques to lecture them. More mosques began offering introductory classes for women.

But some Shiite women aren't satisfied with just the ABCs. In the offices of the Islamic Women's Movement, a Shiite party that promotes Islamic democracy, Ms. Ghareeb and others are planning something bolder: a hawza of their own.

"In the future, we want to have a school that issues religious degrees for women," says Halima Hemadi, a journalist. "It wouldn't be any different from a regular hawza, but it would just be for women."

Right now, the female hawza is just a dream, but they have drawn up a detailed plan: They would study sharia and fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, like men. They hope someday to get a share of the alms left by pilgrims at Shiite religious shrines, which feed the small stipends male seminarians live on.

Most important, they would regain something they lost: a role in public life. "We are asking the Muslim men to show the woman's role and her place in society," reads Ms. Hemadi's declaration, "according to the Koran and the prophet's Sunna [words and deeds] and the thoughts of his life."

Though her demand sounds modest, it contains a veiled challenge. One of the uncomfortable truths in Iraq, as in the rest of the Muslim world, is that women don't have nearly as much freedom as the Koran says they should. For years, Hussein's repression provided a convenient justification for this disparity. Now that excuse is gone, and many Shiite women want to reenter the public sphere. They see Islam as their key.

"This is a new democracy for us, and women should have a role in this government," says Hemadi. "The Islamic society will help us play this role in a bigger way - even in politics. In Islam, there is no problem with women sharing in political matters."

In theory, this is true. An October Gallup poll found that in Najaf, while there was "overwhelming" support for an Islamic state - 92 percent - there was also a record rate of approval for women in politics: 72 percent, Iraq's highest. A religious education, says Hemadi, would allow women to teach others and eventually "lead in society."

But to issue legitimate religious degrees, their hawza would have to be affiliated with Al Hawza al-Ilmiya in Najaf, the 1,300-year-old seminary widely regarded as the preeminent center of religious authority for Shiites. Essentially, they need permission from male religious authorities.

Before he was assassinated on Aug. 29, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim was reportedly planning a hawza for women. His political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, supports the idea. "We know about it, and we agree with it," says Sheikh Hamid Maalla al-Saedi.

But he is quick to draw a line between the women's classes and the hawzas that produce ayatollahs whose doctrines Shiites look to as religious authorities, called marjas. "There should not be a mix between the projects that are related to the marjas and the scientific hawzas, and the women's project, which is connected to the Islamic movement," he says

For now, the women will have to be satisfied with what they can get. In the foyer of the Hurriya mosque, sunlight filters through a skylight, illuminating 20 women. Sprawled on the floor or curled up on benches, they are taking a written exam under the watchful portrait of the slain al-Hakim.

The other women sit in the dark prayer room - the electricity is out - and try to catch up. "Before, only the Baathists could come to these meetings," says Umm Khalil, a 54-year-old woman who never learned to read and write because she was married at 17. "Now the Muslim woman is having her chance, and she's going to take her role in the country."

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