By Amanj Khalil in Sulaimaniyah

[Editor’s Note: First published on the website of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting as “Iraq-Kurdistan: Women claim new law erodes their rights” on 10 June 2008. Located in northern Iraq, the federal region of Kurdistan is currently drafting a new personal status law that is patterned after the Islamic law. Muslim women oppose such measure which is bound to deny them their human rights. Instead, they demand a prohibition of polygamy and a guarantee for equal inheritance. See http://www.iwpr.net/index.php?apc_state =hen&s=o&o=l=EN&p=icr&s=f&o=345113

They’re angry at plans to base legislation governing marriage and inheritance on Islam.

Secular women’s groups and religious leaders are battling over how much influence Islamic law should have over Iraqi Kurdistan’s new personal status legislation.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is drafting a new personal status law to govern matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, replacing the current Iraqi law that was originally drafted in 1959.

Considered one of the most progressive personal status laws in the region at the time, the 1959 legislation restricted polygamy and also prohibited girls younger than 15 from entering into marriage. While Kurdish politicians agree that the law is now outdated, the extent to which it should be changed is a source of controversy in the north. “We want to see a modern law passed, because the old one is against women's demands and rights,” said Suzanne Shahab, a member of parliament and a women’s rights activist.

A committee advising Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani’s government announced during a meeting with women’s advocacy groups in April that it would recommend that Islam be the sole source of legislation for the personal status law. This created an outcry from women’s organisations who say such a move will hinder women’s rights.

Polygamy and inheritance are two issues at the centre of the debate. Secular women’s groups would like an outright ban on polygamy and for women to receive equal inheritance to men. These demands are in conflict with Islamic law, which under most interpretations allows men to have up to four wives and gives women fewer inheritance rights than men.

The debate between Iraqi secular and religious authorities over personal status law extends back decades. Although the 1959 law drafted under secular prime minister Abdul Karim Qasim allowed women and men equal inheritance rights, it was never backed by Islamic leaders. In 1963, the article on inheritance was amended to comply largely with Islamic principles, cutting women’s inheritance by half.

Then, in 2005, Iraqi women – including many Kurdish women leaders – successfully fought to change a draft of the new Iraqi constitution which allowed religious law to be used to decide personal matters.

More than 40 Kurdish women’s organisations, leaders and women’s rights activists have now submitted a memorandum to the Kurdistan regional parliament demanding that the new law promotes women’s rights.

In addition to a ban on polygamy and a change in inheritance laws, women’s rights groups want to set the minimum age for marriage at 18. The 1959 law allows girls between the ages of 15 and 17 to marry with the permission of a judge and a legal guardian.

The committee advising the prime minister on the legislation was originally made up of five male legal experts, including two Islamic scholars. Under pressure from women’s groups, the government has now added five women to the committee, said Shahab.

“Why are religious clerics even on the committee?” asked Chlura Hardi, head of the independent Khatuzeen women’s centre in Erbil, which advocates for women’s rights. She said the committee “has no right to impose religion on the draft law. We have been working to separate religion from the state, but now they want us to make a commitment to religion”.

Jamal Abdullah, a KRG spokesman, said the government had appointed religious figures to the committee “to avoid making mistakes in interpreting Islamic legislation”. “Islam has been a part of our laws for a long time, so we can't just ignore it,” he said. “We have to deal with it, but at the same time we will do our best to make sure that women have equal rights." He stressed that the committee will only make recommendations, and the government will ultimately decide on the legislation it sends to be debated in parliament.

Meanwhile, religious scholars and politicians balk at the assertion that Islamic law contradicts women’s rights.

Mustafa Zalmi, a renowned religious authority and a member of the government’s committee, argued that polygamy is strictly regulated. The practice is fair, he said, because men cannot have more than one wife unless all of the wives are treated equally. “Allah has set very tough conditions for polygamy,” he said. “Men can have a second wife only in cases where the wife is sick or lacks the ability to have marital relations.”

Shamsa Saeed, a member of parliament from the Kurdistan Islamic League list, a political Islamic party with six seats in the regional parliament, argued that polygamy helps widows to remarry. She also noted that women obtain financial security when they get married, which she argued lessens their need for inheritance.

Ultimately, she asserted that polygamy and inheritance cannot be changed because they are Islamic principles. “The rights of women are determined in Islam, and any changes will be at odds with the jurisprudence of Islam,” she said.

Secular women’s right activists and some political leaders said they are optimistic that the government will ultimately adopt legislation that complies with international human rights rather than religious and social traditions.

Muhammad Shareef, a member of the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad who is on the advisory committee, said leaders were sensitive to women’s rights and would abide by international agreements and conventions. “Any changes that are made in the old law must be in the interests of women,” he said.

Kwestan Muhammad, deputy chair of the Kurdish parliament’s women’s rights committee, said it is not clear when the government committee looking at personal status legislation will complete its recommendations, or when parliament will discuss the law. However, she said she is determined not to allow restrictive legislation to pass. “The old law is against women, and we will never let similar legislation be drafted again,” she said.

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