At a Baghdad radio station this month, questions flooded the airwaves: Is this true? How can I protect my little girl from being married off? Who would take a 2-year-old baby away from his mother? Al Musawat Radio [Equality Radio] had been fielding fearful inquiries from women since the proposal of a new law in February that would drastically alter the way many Iraqi women are treated.
The legislation, which would apply only to Iraq’s majority Shia population, would roll back rights for those women and girls in a country whose legal code has long been considered one of the most progressive in the Middle East. Under current Iraqi law, the minimum age for marriage is 18 — though girls as young as 15 may marry with their parents’ consent — and polygamy is banned except under special circumstances. The new law, introduced by Iraqi Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimari, does not explicitly lower the minimum age for marriage, but it sets rules for divorce of girls as young as 9, the age at which, the law argues, girls reach puberty. The law would also legalize marital rape, grant men who divorced their wives automatic custody of children over the age of 2 and make it easier for men to marry multiple wives.
Last month Iraqi women took to the capital’s Tahrir Square to protest the bill. A young girl in a mock wedding dress escorted an older man meant to represent her groom.
“Some of the women were worried this would allow their husbands to get rid of their daughters by marrying them off so they don’t have the responsibility of caring for a girl anymore,” said Ahlam al-Ubeidi, the radio anchor whose show has been inundated with calls. “These girls would get taken out of school, forced to marry an older man. We’ve devoted many hours on the show to this issue and what it means for the rights of women and their children.”
Girls study at a Baghdad orphanage whose director said she will not allow minors there to wed, despite a contentious civil status draft law for Iraqi Shia that would permit child marriage.Karim Kadim / AP
The law would be a blatant violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Iraq is a signatory. And opposition is coming not only from many Shia women but also from some Shia religious leaders.
Women, said Ubeidi, are being used as political pawns by al-Shimari and his party, al-Fadila (virtue). The Islamist group, she said, is using the law to stir up votes among extremely religious Shia ahead of the April 30 national elections. She and others fear the law would further deepen sectarian divisions in Iraq at a time when parts of the country are in open rebellion against the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad.
For others, it represents a brazen push by some devout Shia for more theocratic rule in their country, in the tradition of neighboring Iran. A vision of a theocracy in Iraq is seemingly more within reach for these groups now that the U.S. presence has waned; this week’s elections will be the first since the U.S. military troop withdrawal in 2011.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has remained silent on the law. Critics say he’s waiting to see how many votes his party gets and whether he’ll have to make alliances with other Shia parties, including Fadilah, to gain a majority in parliament.
The proposed law, while troubling to many Iraqi women, isn’t likely to come to a vote anytime soon. Largely viewed as a political stunt, it won’t be debated until after the results of this week’s elections are ratified and a new government is formed. Iraq’s parliament is so notoriously absent — it took six months just to pass a basic retirement law — that any modifications to a law as significant as the personal status law are certain to meet even greater political obstacles and delays.
This is not the first time al-Fadilah has attempted to push through these kinds of measures. The party proposed similar rules in 2004, after Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, was routed from power and Iraqi politicians began cobbling together interim constitutions and governments. Fadilah was forced to abandon its Islamist ambitions amid U.S. opposition and political infighting that lost them potential Cabinet seats. Now, however, with one of their own leading the Justice Ministry, those constraints no longer exist.
Another example of Shia Islamists taking advantage of the void left by Saddam’s ouster was the quick reintroduction in 2003 of temporary marriages, or muta’a. Sunnis generally consider temporary marriage, also known as pleasure marriage, to be haram (forbidden), and the practice was banned under Saddam’s rule. To Shiites, however, it’s an institution that allows single women, particularly those left widowed during war, to have some kind of financial support from their temporary spouses. It is also considered a ploy to permit prostitution.
Devout Muslims spend much of their time navigating the finer points of what is haram and what is halal (permitted), and the world’s Shia usually have at least one venerable port of call: the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an Iranian-born cleric who resides in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf and is considered a spiritual leader of Shia around the globe.
Rarely seen or heard, Sistani has adopted a quietist mode of leading. He eschews direct involvement in government yet is extremely responsive to questions from the faithful on topics as varied as, for example, whether it’s acceptable to swim in a pool where both sexes are present (it’s not) and whether a man may kill his wife if she cheats on him (again, no). On the question of temporary marriage, or pleasure marriage, Sistani has been supportive. He thinks it’s usually acceptable and infinitely preferable to masturbation.
But on this new law, Sistani and other prominent Shia clerics have yet to utter a word. Sheik Jawad al-Khalisi, a moderate Shia cleric, dismissed it. “It is not compatible with the Shia school of Islam,” he told reporters in Baghdad. “It’s been very hastily prepared.” Sistani’s silence on the matter has allowed dissent to foster. Normally, one word from him would muzzle any opposition.
Called the Jaafari personal status law and based on Islamic jurisprudence, the new law even has a section advising men with multiple wives how best to balance a busy schedule. (He should sleep at the home of each woman at least one night a week, according to this summary of the law by Baghdad-based activist Muhannad al-Ghazi.)
For Faiza Babakhan, an activist and former parliamentarian, the new law signals an erosion of women’s rights that has left her and other women reminiscing about Iraq under Saddam.
“It was better under the old regime than it is now because the law applied equally. People went to court to get their rights back,” she told Al Jazeera. “Now, all the people who have the power and the influence — you can’t judge them because they have the power over the law. Iraq has not developed. They are going backward.”
She and others fear that the passage of a Shia version of the current personal status law, in place since 1959, would prompt other sects to make their own revisions, leading to the deterioration of entitlements for all Iraqi women.
“The Sunnis, they will say we need something for the Sunnis, the Yezidis will say the same, and maybe so will the Christians,” Babakhan said. “It will only create more division among Iraqis and discrimination against women, when we are all trying to eliminate discrimination completely. This law will put woman against woman.”
Dalal al-Rubaie, a Shia woman living in Baghdad, said many women she knows are outraged and afraid. “It’s shameful they’re trying to pass a law like this now,” she said. “What kind of law, what kind of person deprives a mother of her infant? How do we even explain to a girl what could happen to her body with an older man?”
She, too, sees a general rollback of women’s rights in recent years. Girls at school, she said, have been criticized by their teachers for not wearing headscarves. Typically, younger girls are exempt from having to cover up, but they are increasingly under pressure from Islamists.
Even without the new law, the number of child marriages is rising. In 1997, 15 percent of marriages in Iraq involved someone under 18, according to Iraqi government statistics. Two years ago, that figure was 25 percent.
Women say they worry that because of financial hardship, men are choosing to marry off their daughters earlier when they’re offered significant dowries. The new law, activists say, would intensify that trend.
Iraq’s tumultuous security environment could be another reason for the rise in child marriages, said Ubeidi. “For men, it is one less person to worry about,” she said. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in attacks across the country in the last few months, leaving families without breadwinners and making them more likely to marry off their daughters.
She recounted one caller’s story of her 13-year-old daughter, who was married against her will to an older man who had agreed to pay the rent for their family home. The girl, said Ubeidi, later committed suicide.