40. Plights to Rights: The Struggle for Equality for the Women of Iraq

Author: Ciara Corcoran, First Year

Since the Ba’ath party gained control of the Iraqi political system in the 1970s, the women of Iraq have been denied liberties supposedly granted to them in their constitution. The women possessed more liberties during the 1950s when General Abdel Karim Qassim led the country, but political unrest led to the restriction of these liberties. The Iran-Iraq War during the late 1980s created even more difficulty for women. Thousands of women were widowed, left needing government support which was granted to them for a time, but as the country fell further into debt as a result of war, the government ceased providing aid. A new constitution was implemented in 1990 that further inhibited the rights of Iraqi women. This new document permitted polygamous marriages for men and implemented reduced jail time for men who committed honor crimes. After the Persian Gulf War, sanctions imposed by the United Nations only further deteriorated the social state of women, leaving many women to face sexual exploitation as a means of providing for their families and others yet were sold by their relatives for profit. The US invasion in 2003 led to the abolition of the Iraqi army and left the country unsure of which legislation to enforce, thus leading to outright violence against women (Ahmed 159).

Many of Iraq’s laws work against the protection of women. In the case of rape, the government cannot hear the case without the agreement of the victim and her legal guardian because rape is treated as a private offense (171). A man may even be forgiven for rape if he marries his victim. In any case, two female witnesses are required for testimony while a man can stand alone (164).

Women are frequently the victims of domestic abuse and sexual harassment. Men go so far as to kill female relatives suspected of sexual indiscretions, so called “honor crimes” and can receive as little as a six month sentence for their actions. Husbands are allowed to punish their wives as wives are obligated to obey their husbands as stated in Shari’a law, the law of Islam, leading to the rise in domestic abuse. A man can have sex with his wife whenever he wishes, and there is no law against spousal rape since it is considered private business. Temporary marriages, prearranged agreements in which a woman marries a man for a certain amount of time in exchange for money, have become more popular after 2003 since the downfall of Saddam Hussein who previously banned these arrangements. In these marriages, the woman has no protection and receives no support if she becomes pregnant leaving many women with no way to support themselves or their children (169).

Women have been encouraged to pursue careers, but they are viewed more as a temporary force during times of trouble than as serious professionals. Women have to compete against men in the job market, and the men are typically more favored. In 2007, only 17% of Iraqi women were in the workforce (174) compared to 59% of American women (Women’s Bureau). The women who are in the workforce are prone to sexual harassment since the laws prohibiting such actions are not enforced while many women are not aware of the steps they could take against these violations (Ahmed 175).
Islam has played a part in denying women their rights and inhibiting their liberties. The Iraqi penal code adheres to the Islamic law of Shari’a which is constantly being reinterpreted, but can be enforced to an extreme level giving harsh punishments for simple crimes (Ali). Religious sectionalism between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims has led to intolerance and violence, inhibiting women from marrying outside their religion and ostracizing the ones that do (Ahmed 166).

This religious intolerance has caused political unrest, manifesting itself in the form of a broken government where women are underrepresented and too afraid to vote for policies that would advance their liberties (179). Most women are unaware of the rights they have and how they can exercise them both socially and politically. The Iraqi government needs to not only update its laws so that women receive more protection, but also enforce the laws they do implement. Through both domestic and foreign NGOs, stricter and enforced protective legislation, and awareness for the promotion of women’s rights, the Iraqi government can provide women the protection they need while achieving the political and social equality these women deserve.

Iraq is located in the Middle East and shares borders with Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. With a population of 30 million people, this country used to be British occupied through the First World War until it achieved independence in 1932 after a League of Nations mandate. Iraq attempted to seize Kuwait during 1990 which led to a United States intervention and a United Nations Security Council decree to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction (Central Intelligence Agency). Since Iraq disregarded this decree, the US invaded the country and a toppled former Iraqi political leader Saddam Husain who had long oppressed the people of Iraq in attempt to remain in power (MacFarquhar). A new constitution was ratified in 2005 which instituted a parliamentary democracy, allowing people to elect their Council of Representatives who then could approve cabinet ministers. Iraq expanded its Council of Representatives in 2010, and US military operations in Iraq ceased in 2011 (Central Intelligence Agency).
The women of Iraq have long been left victim during Iraq’s political unrest and changing regimes. Although the 2005 constitution, which relies heavily on Islam in terms of its legislation, does not allow sex as a basis for discrimination, women are often discriminated against socially and politically (OECD 148). The constitution was drafted by those belonging to Islamic fundamentalist parties, so the charter bans any legislation that would go against Islamic law (Ahmed 161). Women had more liberties in terms of education, employment, and politics from 1960-1980 compared to after 1980 when women were left widowed and impoverished as a result of the Iran-Iraq War. Even more women lost their husbands during the US invasion and the government was only able to provide aid for a limited time due to a lack of funding (Williams). The UN sanctions imposed after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the United States military involvement caused more political unrest. This led to poor legislation in terms of women’s rights with little to no enforcement, leading to worsened conditions for women (Ahmed 159).
The Iraqi legal system does little to protect women and makes it difficult for women to even make a case. Rape cases cannot be heard without the agreement of the victim and her guardian. The minimum punishment for rape is 5 years in prison while the maximum is 7-15 years depending on the severity of the crime, and a man can even be excused of rape if he marries the victim. This means a victim can be forced to spend at least three years with her rapist if he does not divorce her within those three years lest the rape case be reinstated (Ahmed 171). The law is also unfair in the case of honor crimes, or “the traditional practice in some countries of killing a family member who is believed to have brought shame on the family” as the maximum punishment for such an act ranges from six months to three years (159). The law does not allow women to use self-defense, and many honor crimes are unreported by the victims’ families who attribute the deaths to other causes out of fear or shame. The stigma associated with sex-related crimes can be attributed to the influence of Islam which shames women for sexual activity out of the bonds of marriage. This leads the culture to blame women who are the victims of sex-related crimes instead of helping them (163).
Women have been known to be systematically raped by soldiers from 1980-1990 during times of war. This is not so much due to unbearable sexual desire, but rather soldiers asserting dominance and displaying power. These soldiers abuse their military standing and male privilege by irreversibly harming these women both physically and emotionally. The women are left to carry the guilt of losing their ‘purity’ that Iraqi society emphasizes. Rape is often underreported due to fear and social stigma created by the idea that a woman must remain pure lest she bring dishonor upon her family (Seager 56).
In terms of marriage, a man is financially obligated to support his wife, while a wife must obey the orders of her husband so long that they are in accordance with Shari’a. This leaves room for abuse and rape particularly since there is no legislation in place that prevents spousal rape since a man’s punishment of his wife is considered private. Although this is in accordance with Shari’a, it contradicts the Iraqi constitution which forbids familial abuse (Ahmed 168). Domestic abuse is reported commonly in Iraq, as well as nearly every other country, and it is the most common cause of death and injury to women around the world (Seager 26). Women are afraid to speak out about the abuse because it could continue or escalate and these Iraqi  women might even face honor killings by their families (Ahmed 170).
Another more recent occurrence in Iraq is temporary marriages, or mut’ah marriages, which have increased since 2003 after the ban was lifted following Saddam Hussein’s rule. In this Shiite domestic agreement, a woman marries a man for a set amount of time and receives money in return. The man may already have a wife, and only he has the ability to end the marriage. If the temporary wife becomes pregnant, she receives no support. This form of marriage is often a last resort for poverty-stricken women and oftentimes, her family has no knowledge of the agreement (IRAQ). Polygamy is also allowed and can occur without the consent of the first wife; if a man can support another wife and treat both wives equally, then the courts allow him to take more than one wife (Law).
A woman does have the ability to divorce her husband, but the divorce procedure works in favor of the man (Law). A husband can divorce his wife for nearly any reason while a wife can file for divorce “based on various forms of neglect or infirmity on the husband’s part” (Ahmed 169). If the wife is found responsible for causing disputes, she can even be forced to return her dowry. Women have another option, called khula, where she pays the husband for having ended the marriage (Law). While a woman can be granted custody of her children and receive child support after a divorce, she does not receive alimony, leading to poverty in female-headed families (185).
Although Iraq is considered progressive compared to the rest of the Middle East when it comes to citizenship, limitations still exist that prevent female equality. Non-Iraqi husbands of Iraqi women must live in Iraq for a minimum of ten years before applying for citizenship while non-Iraqi wives of Iraqi men must only reside for five years. The child of an Iraqi mother born outside of Iraq to a father of unknown or no nationality must petition for citizenship while no similar restriction exists for the children of Iraqi fathers (Ahmed 162). These limitations work in favor of Iraqi men despite the nationality of the women bearing his child.
In terms of receiving healthcare, women have the ability to make their own decisions regarding their health, but women living in more rural areas are often at the control of their male family members. They have less access to contraceptives and usually need permission from their husbands or male guardian before receiving medical advice (184). In a 2006 survey, 72.4% of women living in rural areas and 64.1% of women in urban areas cited that they needed permission from a male guardian or family member before acquiring medical care. Abortion is only allowed in the case of rape, fatal birth defects, or if the pregnancy would jeopardize the mother’s health (185).
The 2005 Iraqi constitution grants the right to work to all citizens, but women are not taken as seriously as men in the workforce. They are commonly looked at as back-up for when the country needs additional labor. Organizations to support businesses run by women were set up after the US invasion, but oftentimes the businesses failed because of the rise in violence. In 2007, only 17% of Iraqi women were in the workforce, and of those women, nearly a quarter were unemployed and searching for work. Women are allowed to work nightshifts in limited places which exclude factories and government offices, reducing job opportunities. The government began hiring more women to search female citizens from 2004-2008 with the increase of female suicide bombers, but this only shows that the government was hiring women due to a cultural occurrence rather than accepting women in the workplace (Ahmed 174).
Education is free to all children but only primary school is required by law. The US invasion in 2003 led to the destruction of many schools which led to a decrease in female enrollment due to fear of violence. Women have less access to vocational school and are usually influenced by their family members on which subjects to study (Ahmed 177). Since 2007, the literacy rate for women has grown to 72% but this number still differs with the current 86% literacy rate among men. The average schooling expectancy for women is nine years while men are expected to attend school for eleven years (Central Intelligence Agency). Women would be better equipped to compete for jobs with more schooling, but violence and social expectations interfere with education.
In 2004 and 2005, women successfully campaigned for a 25% parliamentary quota which is now enacted in their constitution. Certain laws allow female representation to fall below this quota in provincial councils and women are still not fully represented judicially and in the national government. Although the constitution grants voting rights and the ability to run for office to both men and women, women running for office receive threats that keep them from running for office. Political parties often select passive female candidates who they can control in order to fill the quota (Rubin).When a woman does achieve a political position, she is prone to the prejudice that women are less capable than men in terms of politics (Ahmed 179). Women in rural areas are strongly influenced by male family members on which candidate to vote for. Issues regarding women, such as domestic violence and unemployment, are hardly addressed in campaigns leading to political apathy among women (180).
Many of the issues facing women can be resolved through more active government involvement with the assistance of NGOs, non-governmental organizations. With so many of the government’s laws based in Islam, it is difficult to address an issue firmly rooted in a country’s culture and way of life. Nonetheless, the treatment of women in Iraq is hurting the country by forcing its women to live in fear of violence instead of allowing them to actively participate politically, socially, and economically. A person living in fear can hardly contribute to her family, much less her country. The government can take steps to ensure the safety and equality of the country’s women while enforcing legislation that would prevent further harm and violence.
Since implemented in 1959 (Law), the personal status code of Iraq should be updated to ensure equality for both men and women in terms of marriage, divorce, and inheritance and enforced in a way that its interpretation is not in the control of tribal leaders and religious extremists. The government is responsible for the enforcement of the code and this enforcement would make sure the fate of women is not in the hands of those who interpret Islamic law to an extreme level. The status code can still be influenced by Islam, but it should take into account present-day issues that face both men and women so that the law can serve the Iraqi people better as a whole.
The government should protect any and all candidates running for office, so female candidates will not face threats and therefore can promote more active female political involvement. The 25% parliamentary quota should be enforced in all legislative aspects of the government, so women can address their concerns and take action to promote laws that target women’s issues.  NGOs can raise awareness for political causes through awareness campaigns so women can be educated on the political issues they face. With more women running for office with guaranteed protection, women’s issues could be openly addressed in campaigns so other women would feel more inclined to become politically involved.
A problem associated with NGOs is that their workers are often targets and victims of violence themselves. The government can assist these organizations by protecting the workers like they should protect all Iraqi citizens. Training programs specifically addressing gender violence should be required for workers stationed in conflict areas so workers can protect themselves while being aware of the issues they face. The government should recognize the positive work these organizations are doing and implement measures to protect the workers and the progress they promote. Another problem NGOs face is a decline in funds. The presence of international NGOs has been decreasing due to the idea that Iraq is an oil rich nation (Situation Context Overview). The domestic NGOs can educate the foreign NGOs on issues specifically related to Iraq so that the foreign NGOs can pull funds from international donors. With more funding, these NGOs can continue their positive work in terms of women’s rights.
NGOs should continue their work to raise awareness for issues specifically regarding women such as rape and abuse. Rape is treated as a private matter, but with this crime constantly occurring to thousands of women, it is hardly a private matter at all. NGOs should provide resources such as legal guidance for women who are victims of abuse to make them aware of their political and judicial rights. They can also provide recovery through abuse shelters, counseling, and support groups so these women do not have to continue suffering with the guilt associated with rape in that culture and bear traumatic memories of the experience.
The Iraqi government can take action to ensure that rape and honor killings are not treated as private matters. The law should allow women to defend themselves in court and give harsher punishments, such as longer prison sentences, to those who dare rape women. Rapists should be banned from marrying their victims, and temporary marriages should be outlawed with no leniency for violators so women will not be taken advantage of and left destitute. Those women who became pregnant during temporary marriages should be entitled to child support so they are not left to provide for a child in the poor situation that prompted them to enter into a temporary marriage in the first place. Widows should receive government aid depending on their current income and cost of living in their area and divorced women should receive alimony. This is not to make these women financially dependent, but allowing women to support themselves and their children until they can provide their own means of income. With women able to regain control of their lives financially, they can raise their children without depending on the government.
The government can provide monetary incentives or financial assistance to keep all children in school so that these children can grow up to support themselves and their families. This could help Iraq as a whole by increasing the literacy rate for both men and women to have a more educated population. NGOs can take measures to ensure the education of women by providing funding for upper-level schooling so that women can become competitors in the job industry. With more educated women able to support themselves financially, government aid could decrease. NGOs can also provide resources for female business owners such as loan assistance, business classes, and advertising so women can run their own businesses to support themselves. Business and individuals in the workplace that discriminate on the basis of gender should be reported, and the government should take action to ensure equality for all workers regardless of gender. By educating women about the rights they have in the workplace, female employees can be aware of the action they can take when those rights are violated.
The most important part of any progressive movement is awareness. With more women aware of their rights, the more active they can become in their own lives. NGOs can raise awareness for issues dealing with health, education, politics, and abuse, so women can become aware of problems they face and work together to assist each other. The government needs to play an active role in the protection of Iraqi women, so they can become productive members of society and in turn, help their country.

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