Status Anxiety

How the Jaafari Personal Status Law Could Set Iraqi Women Back Decades

An Iraqi woman holds her child onboard a carriage at Baghdad central railway station, 2003. Kieran Doherty / Courtesy Reuters

Last October, Hassan al-Shimari, Iraq’s minister of justice, quietly submitted a draft law to the Council of Ministers for review. If implemented, the Jaafari Personal Status Law (so named because it is based on the Jaafari school of Shia jurisprudence) will fulfill a longtime goal of the country’s conservative Shia leaders: to exert religious control over critical family matters such as marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance for the country’s Shia -- some 60–65 percent of the population. Shia advocates of the law, noting the decades of oppression they suffered under a harsh Baathist Sunni minority, contend that the bill would expand their freedom to practice their faith. Although that might be true for some Shia, for others it would drastically curtail their civil rights in the name of religion, and deepen sectarian tensions in society. It would also seriously undermine the rights of women and children by permitting unfettered polygamy, a Taliban-like restriction on women’s movement, child marriage for girls as young as nine, unequal divorce and custody, and an end to interreligious marriage.

Iraq’s existing personal status law dates to 1959. It includes several progressive provisions loosely based on various schools of Islamic law. It sets the marriage age at 18 for both boys and girls; prohibits arbitrary divorce; significantly restricts polygamy (including by requiring a judge’s permission and proof that the husband can treat both wives equally); and guarantees equal inheritance for men and women. Together, these provisions marked a considerable legal step forward for Iraqi women who went on to make notable educational, economic, and political strides under the secular Baathists. Religious leaders, however, resented the code from the outset because it forced religious conformity. Shia leaders, in particular, viewed it as yet another example of Sunni oppression.

Soon after Saddam Hussein, a Baathist, was overthrown in March 2003, Shia leaders moved to try to annul the personal status law. Attempting an end-run around the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which was headed by

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