Iraq’s child brides and the flaws in its democracy

Iraq today has an elected Parliament, and 90 years ago it also had an elected Parliament; one of the oldest countries in the world to exercise modern democracy. In theory, community awareness should develop over time, but this is not always the case. 

Iraq’s parliamentarians are considering amending the Personal Status Law to allow for several pieces of legislation, including permitting girls as young as 9 to marry, and allowing tribal customs between clans and others. It is almost not too far from the thoughts and practices of Daesh, the terrorist group! 

The problem of democratization in “simple” societies (less developed and less aware) has been repeated. The Parliament reflects the state of society and its culture. Parliamentarians deal with democracy in its basic concepts by applying what the people want, by pleasing their constituents and by meeting their demands. 

The prevalence of culture and awareness in Iraqi society is similar to that in most Arab societies — simple and limited, dominated by old rural customs and traditions, although Iraq is a country of great ancient civilizations and a country that has been associated with new civilization since the beginning of the last century. 

Egypt, too, is a country of ancient civilizations and the first Middle Eastern country to respond to and assimilate modern industrial civilization, but it suffers the same situation as Iraq. After the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, an outcome of the “Arab Spring,” there was a debate among the victors about the concepts of democracy and liberalism associated with it. 

When the Muslim Brotherhood group came to power, by election, represented in the party of President Mohamed Morsi, they tried to write a new constitution in line with the rest of the Egyptian political forces. Because they won, the Islamist group thought they had the right to dictate their views in the proposed constitution on the ground that they had won the most votes. 

Their vision of the constitution would be written at the expense of minorities such as the Copts and women, and the marginalization of the principle of separation of powers by domination over the judiciary. This is a distorted concept of democracy. 

Iraqis are overpowered by conservative, religious and tribal social forces; the constitution allows those forces to practice political action without setting limits on their power to use their influence in elections, and on parliamentary or government action. 

Religious forces, in particular, exploit this to attack their rivals or strengthen their influence by raising money in the name of religion to form armed militias, claiming that it is their religious duty. Because the central authority is weak and cannot confront these militias to avoid internal sedition, all it has done is prevent armed religious political forces from contesting elections. 

However, these forces can maneuver through the appointment of those who won the backing of the armed militias to run in the elections. But the state cannot deny religious workers, as it prevents the military, from entering politics, because more than half of Iraq’s political leaders today belong to religious organizations as well as tribal groups. 

The supreme judicial authority cannot intervene to prevent Parliament from imposing legislation that violates the principles of democracy and the basic rights of Iraqis, whether ethnic or religious minorities, women, or others. 

Democracy suffers in backward societies, and the elite’s relative awareness fails to impose itself; although segments of society are well aware and educated, they remain a minority. Extremists can override democracy by voting for the same ends that the terrorists failed to achieve by force of arms! 

The irony is that if Parliament votes to amend the Personal Status Law and allows the marriage of female children, then Iraq will be placed on the list of countries that violate human rights; but at the same time it will remain classed as one of the democratic countries in the world because of its government and its legislation. 

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published. Twitter: @aalrashed


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