Where the River Bends

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the female Iraqui blogger River Bend, but my feeling is that those of you who aren’t would do well to make her acquaintance. Juan Cole describes her in his blogroll as an Iraqi nationalist, but reading the posts she doesn’t seem to be a nationalist in any stronger sense than say Blair and Bush are patriotic, or than Schroeder and Chirac are in the defence of their respective corners (of course this may well be problematic, but it is just to put things in perspective). Iraqi nationalism could also mean Baath, and this isn’t the case here. Indeed what she has to say about the Kurdish question is remarkably similar to what the Spanish PSOE seems to be proposing in connection with the Basque and Catalan ‘problems’ here in Spain. And this is not an idle comparison, since I think if you don’t get your mindset round what the ‘problem’ is in Spain, you are never going to begin to understand what it is in Iraq.

Reading one of her posts earlier this week, I couldn’t help been drawn towards an unfortunate parrallel: that between what is now taking place in Iraq and the topic of one of Scott Marten’s recent posts: the headscarf. Wouldn’t it indeed be ironic if we were about to witness a similar – if diametrically opposed error – being committed in two places at once? Whilst young French girls may be denied the right to religious expression at one end, young Iraqi ones may be denied the right to secularism. at the other And all in the name of democracy. Strange world.

On Wednesday our darling Iraqi Puppet Council decided that secular Iraqi family law would no longer be secular- it is now going to be according to Islamic Shari’a. Shari’a is Islamic law, whether from the Quran or quotes of the Prophet or interpretations of modern Islamic law by clerics and people who have dedicated their lives to studying Islam.

The news has barely been covered by Western or even Arab media and Iraqi media certainly aren’t covering it. It is too much to ask of Al-Iraqiya to debate or cover a topic like this one- it would obviously conflict with the Egyptian soap operas and songs. This latest decision is going to be catastrophic for females- we’re going backwards.

Don’t get me wrong- pure Islamic law according to the Quran and the Prophet gives women certain unalterable, nonnegotiable rights. The problem arises when certain clerics decide to do their own interpretations of these laws (and just about *anyone* can make themselves a cleric these days). The bigger problem is that Shari’a may be drastically different from one cleric to another. There are actually fundamental differences in Shari’a between the different Islamic factions or ‘methahib’. Even in the same methahib, there are dozens of different clerics who may have opposing opinions. This is going to mean more chaos than we already have to deal with. We’ve come to expect chaos in the streets? but chaos in the courts and judicial system too?!

This is completely unfair to women specifically. Under the Iraqi constitution, men and women are equal. Under our past secular family law (which has been in practice since the ’50s) women had unalterable divorce, marriage, inheritance, custody, and alimony rights. All of this is going to change.

I’ll give an example of what this will mean. One infamous practice brought to Iraq by Iranian clerics was the ‘zawaj muta’a’, which when translated by the clerics means ‘temporary marriage’. The actual translation is ‘pleasure marriage’- which is exactly what it is. It works like this: a consenting man and woman go to a cleric who approves of temporary marriage and they agree upon a period of time during which the marriage will last. The man pays the woman a ‘mahar’ or dowry and during the duration of the marriage (which can be anything from an hour, to a week, a month, etc.) the man has full marital rights. Basically, it’s a form of prostitution that often results in illegitimate children and a spread of STDs.

Sunni clerics consider it a sin and many Shi’a clerics also frown upon it? but there are the ones who will tell you it’s ‘halal’ and Shari’a, etc. The same people who approve it or practice it would, of course, rather see their daughters or sisters dead before they allow *them* to practice it- but that’s beyond the point.

Anyway, secular Iraqi family law considers it a form of prostitution and doesn’t consider a ‘pleasure marriage’ a legitimate marriage. In other words, the woman wouldn’t have any legal rights and if she finds herself pregnant- the child, legally, wouldn’t have a father.

So what happens if a married man decides to arrange a pleasure marriage on the side? In the past, his legitimate wife could haul him off to court, and ask for a divorce because the man would be committing adultery under Iraqi family law. That won’t be the case now. Under certain clerics, a pleasure marriage will be considered legal and the woman won’t have a case for divorce. Under other clerics, he’ll be committing adultery- so who gets to judge? The cleric she chooses, or the cleric he chooses?

Another example is in marriage itself. By tribal law and Shari’a, a woman, no matter how old, would have to have her family’s consent to marry a man. By Iraqi law, as long as the woman is over 18, she doesn’t need her family’s consent. She can marry in a court, legally, without her parents. It rarely happened in Iraq, but it *was* possible.

According to Iraqi secular law, a woman has grounds to divorce her husband if he beats her. According to Shari’a, it would be much more difficult to prove abuse.

Other questions pose themselves- Shari’a doesn?t outlaw the marriage of minors (on condition they’ve hit puberty). Iraqi secular law won’t allow minors to marry until the age of at least 16 (I think) for women and the age of 18 for men.

By Iraqi civil law, parents are required to send their children to complete at least primary school. According to Shari’a, a father can make his son or daughter quit school and either work or remain at home. So what happens when and if he decides to do that? Does Shari’a apply or does civil law apply?

There are hundreds of other examples that I can think of and that make me feel outrage. I practice Islam, but do I want an Islamic government? No. I feel that because we have so many different methahib and religions, any religious government is bound to oppress some faction of society. It’s already happening in the south where fundamentalist Shi’a are attacking Christian families and shops.

Juan Cole had something to say about the subject and he referred to an article written in Financial Times appropriately titled, “Iraqi plan for Sharia law ‘a sop to clerics’, say women”. Unfortunately, the writers of the article apparently have no background on secular Iraqi law beyond what the GC members have told them. The fundamentalist GC members claim that civil Iraqi law forced people to go against their doctrine, which isn’t true because a large part of civil law was based on Shari’a or the parts of Shari’a that were agreed upon by all the differing Islamic factions (like the right to divorce) and taking into consideration the different religious groups in Iraq.

Women are outraged? this is going to open new doors for repression in the most advanced country on women’s rights in the Arab world! Men are also against this (although they certainly have the upper-hand in the situation) because it’s going to mean more confusion and conflict all around.

What happens when all the clerics agree that a hijab isn’t ‘preferred’ but necessary? According to this new change in the ‘ahwal shakhsiya’ laws or ‘personal circumstances’ laws, all women will have to cover their heads and according to Shari’a, if a woman’s husband decides that she can’t continue her education or work, she’ll have to remain a house-wife.

Please don’t misunderstand- any oppression to women isn’t a reflection on Islam. It’s a reflection on certain narrow minds, ignorance and the politicization of religion. Islam is a progressive religion and no religion is clearer on the rights of women- it came during a time when women had no rights at all.

During the sanctions and all the instability, we used to hear fantastic stories about certain Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, to name a few. We heard about their luxurious lifestyles- the high monthly wages, the elegant cars, sprawling homes and malls? and while I always wanted to visit, I never once remember yearning to live there or even feeling envy. When I analyzed my feelings, it always led back to the fact that I cherished the rights I had as an Iraqi Muslim woman. During the hard times, it was always a comfort that I could drive, learn, work for equal pay, dress the way I wanted and practice Islam according to my values and beliefs, without worrying whether I was too devout or not devout enough.

I usually ignore the emails I receive telling me to ’embrace’ my new-found freedom and be happy that the circumstances of all Iraqi women are going to ‘improve drastically’ from what we had before. They quote Bush (which in itself speaks volumes) saying things about how repressed the Iraqi women were and how, now, they are going to be able to live free lives.

The people who write those emails often lob Iraq together with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan and I shake my head at their ignorance but think to myself, “Well, they really need to believe their country has the best of intentions- I won’t burst their bubble.” But I’m telling everyone now- if I get any more emails about how free and liberated the Iraqi women are *now* thanks to America, they can expect a very nasty answer.

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