A draft law, which was recently approved by Iraq's council of ministers, could usher in a number of damaging changes for women and girls in the country. Commonly called the Jaafari personal status law, this bill would legalise marital rape and gives fathers automatic custody over children older than two. It also has provision for nine year old girls to be divorced, which is seen to legitimise marriage at this age.
Talking to the Guardian newspaper, Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa, says that this law “would be a disastrous and discriminatory step backward for Iraq's women and girls.” It has yet to be approved and would have to voted on by parliament before it could be adopted by lawmakers in the country.
The bill, put forward by the Fadila party, is seen as part of the complex political negotiation that is going on ahead of Iraqi elections on April 30th. The law would only affect Shia Muslims and, according Professor Hassan al-Shimari at Baghdad University, is an attempt by Fadila to prove that they represent the country's Shia majority. The party currently has seven seats in the national governing coalition, which is lead by president Nouri al-Maliki, and their support could be important in the upcoming election.
The president has yet to make his position on the bill clear, choosing to stay out of the debate so far. It is commonly felt that it would only be properly considered if Maliki needed the support of Fadila. As it stands he has sent the proposal for discussion at committee level in order to avoid conflict with a core section of the Shia constituency.
A spokesman for the justice minister, who introduced the bill and leads the Fadila party, has issued a defiant statement to critics. Talking to the Guardian he says “there are those who disagree with this law and we don't care about them because they are against Islam.” However, if the bill were to go to a vote it seems that it would face some strong opposition from MPs.
Safia al-Suhail, who is one of 82 women in the parliament, would welcome the chance to vote on the bill. She believes that “this law means humiliation for women and for Iraqis in general”, but thinks that a majority of the parliament would reject it. Whatever the eventual outcome, this remains a tense time for advocates of women's and girl's rights in Iraq.
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