Women, Islam, and the New Iraq

THE IMPACT OF SHARIA

Article 14 of Iraq's new constitution, approved in a nationwide referendum held on October 15, states that Iraqis are equal before the law "without discrimination because of sex." Yet the constitution also states that no law can be passed that contradicts the "established rulings" of Islam. For this reason, the new document has been condemned by critics both inside and outside Iraq as a fundamental setback for a majority of Iraq's population -- namely, its women. According to Isam al-Khafaji, an Iraqi scholar, the document "could easily deprive women of their rights." Yanar Muhammad, a leading secular activist and the head of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, worries that the Islamic provision will turn the country "into an Afghanistan under the Taliban, where oppression and discrimination of women is institutionalized."

These criticisms are not without merit, and the ambiguity of the new constitution is a cause for concern. The centrality of Islamic law in the document, however, does not necessarily mean trouble for Iraqi women. In fact, sharia is open to a wide range of understanding, and across the Islamic world today, progressive Muslims are seeking to reinterpret its rules to accommodate a modern role for women.

Iraq's constitution does not specify who will decide which version of Islam will prevail in the country's new legal system. But the battle has already begun. Victory by the progressives would have positive implications for all aspects of the future of Iraq, since women's rights are critical to democratic consolidation in transitional and war-torn societies. Allowing a full social, political, and economic role for women in Iraq would help ensure its transition to a stable democracy. Success for women in Iraq would also reverberate throughout the broader Muslim world. In every country where sharia is enforced, women's rights have become a divisive issue, and the balance struck between tradition and equality in Iraq will influence these other debates.

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