Iraq: Rise of extremism, Islamic law threatens Iraqi women

The New Standard
While Iraqis largely blame foreign forces for the relative loss of security and freedom, secular Iraqis fear other products of the 2003 invasion - fundamentalist militants and the prospect of religious rule - as much as occupation and daily terrorism.
The recent murders of several Iraqi women who had been active in human rights work, government service and business, combined with the ongoing economic crisis under US military occupation and the possible introduction of fundamentalist Islamic law into the country’s new constitution, suggest that conditions for women in Iraq continue to decay.
Iraqi women in prominent positions, as well as activists and those who do not abide by strict Islamic behavioral and dress codes, have increasingly become the targets of violence from Islamic extremists, street gangs and elements within the anti-occupation insurgency.

On a highway near Baghdad recently, the body of pharmacist and women’s rights activist Zeena Al-Qushtaini turned up ten days after assailants had abducted her at gunpoint from her pharmacy. Al-Qushtaini had two bullet holes close to her eyes and was reportedly clothed in a traditional Islamic abaya, a garment quite different from the Western clothes she was known for wearing, Reuters reported. Pinned to the abaya was a message that read, "She was a collaborator against Islam," family members relayed.

Other stories of extreme violence against women are becoming more common. IRIN, the United Nations humanitarian news service, reports that decapitated female corpses have turned up recently, many accompanied by notes similar to the one attached to Al-Qushtaini.

In Mosul, Islamic militants have killed twenty women, most of them professionals and students, the London Times reports.

And in Basra recently, dozens of armed men attacked college students enjoying a spring picnic, the Times also reports. The students’ crimes: co-ed socializing and playing secular music. Students who escaped the scene say the attackers were members of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Mehdi militia, which fought US troops last year during prolonged battles in Karbala and Najaf.

"We beat them because we are authorized by [God] to do so, and that is our duty," Sheik Ahmed Al-Basri, an Al-Sadr loyalist, reportedly said after the incident.

In addition to activists, professionals and students, fundamentalists have also targeted women working for humanitarian agencies.

"I just want to do my work. It's a humanitarian field. I should talk according to what we have seen," Firdous Al-Abadi, a representative from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, told IRIN. During the massive US-led assault on Fallujah last fall, she reported that civilians were trapped in the city without water, electricity or sufficient food. She desperately called on US-led forces to let humanitarian workers enter the city with supplies. Al-Abadi told IRIN that insurgents accused her of talking too much in public.

Several women in Baghdad who spoke to the Chicago Tribune say they feel under siege in their own neighborhoods, which have been overrun by criminal gangs and insurgents. The London Times reports that walls in Latifya, a city south of Baghdad, are covered with leaflets warning women and girls not to go out in public without covering their head and face. Violators will be punished by death, the signs warn. As a result, many women who never wore traditional Islamic clothing are putting on the hijab and the abaya before leaving their homes.

"There are armed men everywhere," Yanar Mohammed, a women’s rights activist, told the Tribune. "If you go without the protection of the scarf, they can stop you and you may get assaulted." Mohammed also said women face "pressure from husbands and fathers" to comply with the wishes of armed fundamentalists. "Being good and chaste means you put a veil on. They tell you it’s voluntary, but how can it be voluntary when there’s that much pressure on you?" Mohammed asked.

Some secular women say they will continue to wear Western-style clothing in defiance of the fundamentalists, while others opt to play it safe, though often not without expressing anger at the US for initiating the series of events that they believe has driven the rise of fundamentalism. "If George Bush thinks this is liberation, then he should make his own wife and daughters wear hijab," Hanan Azzawi, a Baghdad hairstylist, told the Tribune.

Acts of violence and intimidation have caused many Iraqi women to withdraw from public life, according to a February report by Amnesty International (AI). Titled "Iraq: Decades of Suffering, Now Women Deserve Better," the AI report concluded that, on the whole, conditions for women were no better under Iraq’s US-installed interim government than they were under Saddam Hussein.

In addition to citing numerous cases of violence at the hands of anti-occupation rebel factions, AI noted that Iraqi women have suffered torture and abuse at the hands of US forces. Huda Hafez Amad, reportedly one of the last women detainees released from Abu Ghraib prison, testified that she was hit in the face by US interrogators who made her stand for twelve hours with her face against a wall.

Other female detainees were subjected to sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib, and a male Military Police guard raped at least one, according to a report issued in 2004 by Major General Antonio Taguba. US-led forces have also illegally detained Iraqi women and held them as "bargaining chips" in efforts to convince male relatives to turn themselves in or admit involvement in the resistance activities.

Beyond immediate violence, many Iraqi women fear that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism will result in the imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia, which could take the place of Iraq’s long-standing Personal Status Law, a secular civil code instituted in 1958 and maintained through the Saddam Hussein years. The Personal Status Law is considered highly progressive in comparison with the social decrees of most other Middle Eastern countries.

Although Sharia varies in its interpretation and implementation in countries where it has been adopted, it typically gives male-run religious courts jurisdiction over important social matters such as divorce, marriage, inheritance, dress code and domestic violence.

Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, the Shi’ite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance’s candidate for Prime Minister and a member of the Islamic Dawa party, told Germany’s Der Spiegel last week that his government would introduce Sharia as "one of several sources of jurisprudence." Al-Jaafari promised that Iraq’s brand of Islamic law would not mirror Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s, saying that women will "be free to choose for themselves" whether they will wear veils.

Activist Yanar Mohammed is skeptical of such pledges. "Ibrahim Al-Jaafari is well-decorated to look like a Western man, but he has this 100 percent Islamic agenda, and women will be inferior if he takes over," she told the Chicago Tribune. Mohammed’s group, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), rejected the results of January’s elections, arguing that the new parliament "only represents the Islamic and ethic parties" instead of the "masses in Iraq." OWFI calls for a constitution that separates church and state as well as laws that "treat all residents of Iraq equally."

Plans to introduce Sharia might face derailment efforts by secular Kurds who have the second strongest bloc in parliament and have generally resisted the imposition of religious law. Still, many Iraqi women fear that as negotiations to form a new government and draft a constitution drag on, women’s rights will be sacrificed as part of a compromise among the major players. In exchange for more regional autonomy, some fear that Kurdish delegates will allow the imposition of Islamic law on critical family issues.

Such a compromise has already been struck once. In late 2003, the US-installed Iraqi Governing Council, consisting of leading Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs, Kurds and secular Iraqis, passed a resolution that would have overturned the Personal Status Law in favor of religious law. That body withdrew Resolution 137, as it was known, after a massive outcry from Iraqi women’s groups.

But with more and more women fearing attacks by insurgents, and with others reluctant to venture outdoors -- let alone participate in public affairs -- some worry that the struggle for women’s rights will become far more difficult in coming months. "I’m expecting the worst, which is bringing back the 137 decree," Basma Fakri, president of the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq, told Reuters. But Fakri also urged women to put up a fight, advising them to "join forces with other members of the assembly to fight for women’s rights."

Suzan Sarkon, a Baghdad resident, was even less hopeful, telling the Chicago Tribune she thinks Sharia is inevitable. "I’m sure they will form an Islamic government and our freedom will be gone," she said. "We’ve never lived freely in Iraq, and now I think we never will."