Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2004
Issue No. 675
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I wanna secularise you up

The IGC's decision to cancel Iraq's personal status law prompted large demonstrations in Baghdad. But as Ashraf Khalil writes from the Iraqi capital, the decision might serve as a wake-up call to the country's secular political forces

The recent decision by the Interim Governing Council (IGC) to cancel Iraq's personal status law may, in the long run, end up being of benefit to Iraqi women's rights activists and other liberal political forces.

The controversial decision would, if implemented, essentially eliminate the idea of civil marriage, and place several aspects of family law, including marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance, directly under the control of religious authorities.

The decision, which was passed in late December, was viewed as an attempt by conservative Shi'ite religious leaders on the council to pave the way for a theocracy based on Islamic Shari'a law.

But few fear that the IGC decision will actually be made into law in the near future. Currently, all IGC decisions must be ratified by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Chief Paul Bremer in order to be implemented. Maysoon Al-Damluji, deputy minister of culture, said she had spoken to Bremer about the law and that he had "promised not to sign it".

Nevertheless, the IGC vote is regarded as a warning shot that the country's religious leaders have their eyes on the personal status law once the Americans turn over power to the Iraqis.

"It's a symbolic decision, but it's symbolic of some very dangerous trends," said Waad Hashem Lufta, a member of the coordinating committee for the Iraqi Women's League. "Women suffered as much if not more than the men under Saddam. Now democracy comes and this happens?"

Response to the decision was swift and harsh -- and for liberal activists, encouraging. A series of public protests and demonstrations ensued, including a sit-in at Firdous Square attended by the minister of public works, Nisreen Barwari.

An article in the 17 January issue of Al Zaman daily newspaper marvelled that the IGC found time to worry about marriage laws in the face of Iraq's other problems, asking "Is the personal status law an obstacle that stands in the way of rebuilding the telephone network, or the electrical and water systems or repairing schools or establishing security or, most importantly, ending the occupation?"

Al-Damluji criticised the decision as symbolic of a short-sighted and simplistic view of Iraqi society. The idea of locking familial law under a single religious banner ignores the ethnic and religious diversity of the country and this blurring of lines has become commonplace in diverse cities such as Baghdad and Mosul. What happens, she asks, if a Sunni Kurd and a Shi'ite Muslim want to get married, or, for that matter, two atheists?

"There's been a lot of inter-marriage," she said. "We're all mixed."

However, Al-Damluji is not opposed to the idea of a comprehensive review of the law to streamline it and make it more relevant to modern times. The original 1959 law was liberal and secular, but it has been tampered with over the years, according to the political conditions of the time. The law contravened Shari'a by decreeing equal inheritance shares for male and female children, and banned men from polygamy without the consent of the first wife. But the inheritance rule was abolished shortly after Abdul-Karim Qassem was ousted by the Ba'ath Party in 1963, and the polygamy ban was later cancelled by Saddam Hussein.

For months, Kurdish and secular politicians have worried about the growing influence of conservative Shi'ite ideology -- as evidenced by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani's ability to marshall 100,000-strong demonstrations on short notice. In a country with no tradition of grassroots political activity, the clerics have the upper hand because of the built-in organisational power of the mosque-based network.

But in the wake of their own recent muscle flexing on the personal status law, women activists sound ready to take on the challenge -- and the law may just be the perfect rallying point. One Kurdish observer described it as "the first real pan-Iraqi issue" which cuts across religious, tribal and ethnic lines.

"We're going to have to work very hard to make sure that nothing like this is repeated, or even attempted," said Al-Damluji.

For now, the presence of American oversight prevents issues like the personal status law from becoming too large or divisive a problem. But many see a looming battle in the near future that will largely shape the character and soul of the new Iraq.

"We'll take our rights with our own hands," said Lufta, of the Iraqi Women's League. "We don't need the Americans to protect us from these people."

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