Iraqi women eye Islamic law

The majority United Iraqi Alliance supports sharia.

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.

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.

In the nearly two years since the regime of Saddam Hussein fell, pressure has grown for women to conform to stricter Islamic standards. "The Baath Party, with all the things many believe they did wrong, [still ensured that Iraqi] women had the most rights in the region," says Rime Allaf, an associate fellow with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, where she is researching women's status in Iraq. "Now, a lot of women are being very careful about how they dress. They are being told by perfect strangers, 'You need to cover your hair ... [and] your arms.' "

As a result, a central concern is how Islamic law might be interpreted and implemented. "Sharia depends on the man who is giving the law, the [religious leaders] and others. No one can guarantee sharia will be applied perfectly," says Abeer Rashid, a female candidate on Allawi's list who didn't win a seat.

On the ground, Iraqi women have very different ideas about what sharia means.

Umm Hibba, Aseel Abid, and Umm Sermat, politely ask about each other's families and health over tiny glasses of sweet tea in a relative's house. But the three, all wearing head scarves and loose-fitting black robes, erupt over questions of their rights under the new government.

Sharia is a good idea, they say, if it is mixed with civil rights to guarantee they won't become second-class citizens. But Umm Hibba, who declined to give her full name for security and because it is sometimes considered inappropriate for a married woman, believes sharia is the only option. She has been told a secular government means one run by "infidels."

Ms. Abid says that, as a good Muslim, she supports sharia. But she likes a secular government and supports Allawi, who campaigned on his secularism.

Umm Sermat, who also would not give her full name, thinks Islamic law is a good idea but wants the protections she had under Mr. Hussein's secular regime. "The law [then] was with the women 100 percent," she says. A man "had to get his wife's permission to take a second wife. They should share the [assets] if the wife is separated. In a divorce, they have to prepare a furnished house for her.... We don't want a sharia constitution like the Iranian model. We're not worried about [UIA] being like Iran because it also includes (Ahmed) Chalabi, a Shiite" who is secular.

But Umm Hibba jumps in with concerns that Iran's theocracy is making Iraq more conservative. "They said what I am wearing is devil clothes," she says of the time she was recently turned away from the main mosque in Baghdad's Shiite Kadhimiya neighborhood. She pulls incredulously at the shapeless black robe that got her banned because openings between the fasteners revealed flashes of the long formless dress underneath.

Umm Sermat dismisses her concerns, saying the women in the national assembly will stand up for them, even those in conservative rural areas. "We aren't worried because these women are there," she says. "They have to give more rights to women, especially in the south, [where] the women are treated in an unfair way."

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