Iraqi women urge limited sharia in new constitution

At a meeting of prominent Iraqi women concerned that Islam will be enshrined in Iraq's constitution, one of the things they asked for provided a surprising glimpse of just where Iraq's winds of political change are heading.

While they demanded equal rights and an express ban on violence against women, it was a joint statement by the 16 women that raised eyebrows: "The Islamic sharia should be one of the sources of law."

The women know that Iraq is a deeply Islamic country and are seeking to inoculate their fight for equal rights against allegations of being un-Islamic.

Asked why they feel that sharia alone isn't enough to protect their rights, Rend Rahim, an Iraqi-American and ambassador to the US who lobbied in exile for regime change here, cut in.

"We don't fear sharia,'' she says. "Islam guarantees rights for women. But what we're concerned about is the arbitrary interpretations'' that could hurt women's rights.

Some interpretations allow for men to beat their wives, give men more inheritance rights than women, and consider a woman's testimony to be worth less than a man's when it comes to legal disputes.

Ms. Rahim says the women are adamant that sharia only be "a" source of law rather than "the" source of law, as Iraq's biggest Shiite political parties want, because it would take the job of religious interpretation out of individuals' hands, and put them into the hands of clerics.

Women's groups have been lobbying hard for the past week, meeting with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has backed their demands. They are also cobbling together the support of Kurdish and secular Arab factions in the parliament.

But it's unclear how much influence the US really retains in the constitutional process. Saad Jawad Qindeel, the head of political affairs for Sciri, a Shiite party, says Mr. Khalilzad's comments haven't been welcome. "Any comments regarding the contents of the constitution from a non-Iraqi source are not going to be helpful."

"Some women based on an ideological standpoint think that Islam is against women, but we don't agree. Islam affirms the rights of women,'' he says.

But there's little question that if the language on Islam being demanded for the constitution by Iraq's two largest political parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and the Dawa Party, isn't changed, then male clerics will have much influence over how the law is interpreted here. Such clerics have traditionally favored men.

On the streets of Baghdad, the concern about Islam in the constitution is far from universal. A group of women emerging from a Koran study group at the Baratha Mosque, a Sciri bastion, say they don't understand what the fuss is all about.

Rafaf Aziz, a teacher wrestling with a poorly tied head scarf, says: "We're an Islamic country, and if Islam is in the constitution then it will give them all rights, just like it does for everyone."

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