Progressives Mount Resistance To New Law

There was one place where the usually joyous International Women's Day celebrations took place under a menacing shadow. Many women came to the streets cloaked head to toe in black, as if in mourning. This was Baghdad on Saturday March 8 this year. 

The following day in London, a woman who had been there on the streets talked almost in disbelief about the draft law approved by the Iraqi cabinet two weeks ago and now with parliament for approval. 

The new family legislation enshrined in the so called Ja'afari Personal Status Law (after a Shi'ite imam) and put forward by the Islamic Shia Al-Fadhila Party will, if approved, turn the clock back for Iraqi women and girls by not just decades but centuries. 

Its contents, say some commentators, will impose an Iranian-style theocracy and campaigners have dubbed it "a crime against humanity." It will invest jurisdiction over family matters with the Shi'ite Islamic establishment, which will hear cases brought under this legislation in religious tribunals presided over by an Islamic judge. 

It will completely eradicate the current hard-won secular code - dating from 1959 - which enshrines women's rights in marriage, child custody and inheritance law and which has been regarded as the most progressive in the Middle East. 

Under the provisions of the new law men will exercise medieval control over women, with jurisdiction over every aspect of their lives. Men will have the right to sex with their wives whenever they want it, giving them carte blanche to assault and rape with impunity. 

Muslim men will be forbidden to marry outside the faith but can enter into temporary "marriage" with non-Muslims, effectively pushing women into legalised abusive relationships in which they have lost all rights. 

Women will be barred from leaving their homes without the permission of their husbands, who can hold them captive for as long as they desire, forbidding them contact even with close family members. Men are to be given automatic custody of their children from their second birthday, denying mothers any recourse to law should access to their infants be denied. 

Once they reach nine, little girls will be "marriageable" and, in fact will be at risk of marriage at an even younger age should their father or grandfather consent. This is legalised child abuse with unthinkable consequences. 

Reactionary Islamists first tried to get similar family law through parliament after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 under US occupation. So much for the US myth of bringing justice and freedom. Then, as now, the move serves to sow and reinforce deep sectarian divisions and frustrate the just aspirations of the Iraqi people to move forward in unity to a future that they and only they determine. 

This time round the draft before parliament has again met with massive opposition from the Iraqi people, including a very broad spectrum of democratic forces, civil society organisations, the women's movement, secular organisations and Kurdish parties.

Many Islamic groups have also added their voice to calls to halt the process of ratification of the draft before parliament. Among their number are Shia clerics and organisations as well as Sunni groups. Condemnation of the Ja'afari Law is gaining strength too in international circles. 

The United Nations representative in Iraq Nickolay Miadenov has stated categorically that the proposed law is in defiance of the constitutional rights of women and of Iraq's international commitments. The proposals are in absolute contravention of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the UN in 1979, to which Iraq is a signatory. 

At the forefront of the urgent campaign to ensure that the Iraqi parliament never enacts this inhuman and archaic piece of legislation is the democratic and progressive Iraqi Women's League, founded on March 10 1952 and tireless in its struggle for women's equality and freedom ever since. 

It stresses the importance of international solidarity in preventing the forces of reaction coming to the fore and returning our sisters in Iraq to the Dark Ages. As an Iraqi speaker said at an event on International Women's Day, "None of us can move forward if half of us are held back." 

Please add your voice to the condemnation of the Ja'afari Personal Status Law and demand that it be removed for ever from the legislative agenda of the Iraqi parliament. Write to The Iraqi Embassy in London: 21 Queen's Gate, London SW7 5JE.
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