Notable Books: Barefoot in Baghdad

Notable Books: Barefoot in Baghdad

Chapter Ten


My six months on the ground had demonstrated what I had known by instinct. Iraqi women were powerful.

The women ranged from the elite to the grassroots, and it was an honor to work with each of them. They particularly embodied for me all that our shared culture could accomplish. It was easy to see why their strength was legendary in the Middle East. They had paved the way for women in the region by being among the first to vote, the first to participate in the judiciary system, and the first to demonstrate their economic power. Women from the rural areas became legendary for devising methods to survive the sanctions of the 1990s. The women I met were proud of their ability to survive, and although they were exhausted, they were willing to continue the struggle for a better future.

By now, Iraqi women realized they needed to take matters into their own hands. Many argued that for too long power had been left unquestionably in the hands of men. They recognized a void had been created, and many were determined to be part of whatever power structure would step up to fill it. Women were focused on the endgame. They were strategizing ways to leap forward, and they refused to be discouraged by the signs surrounding them.

On December 29, 2003, with less than a thirty-minute debate, the Interim Governing Council (IGC) voted for Resolution 137. The primary advocate for Resolution 137 was Abdel Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The council was an important political player, and many other political parties that supported women’s issues did not want to lose the SCIRI as an ally.

Women’s rights activists around the country went into a frenzy. Resolution 137 would push women’s rights back centuries. Whereas Iraqi women had been looking for ways to leap forward, they now found themselves in the unenviable position of fighting for the status quo.

Iraqi women united against the resolution and even took to the streets in one of the first public protests in over thirty years in the streets of Baghdad.

Fern and other international women’s rights activists held the U.S. government responsible. They claimed that the IGC was an extension of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq since the IGC had been appointed by the United States. As a result, if the resolution were passed into law, it would be an infringement of international law as defined by the 1907 Hague Regulations.

The Hague Regulations forbade any changes to the civil law by an occupying power. Under the Hague Conventions, the IGC’s mandate was only to restore public order and safety.

Although all women were united against Resolution 137, the rhetoric of defending women’s rights became divisive. International women’s groups began to attack core Islamic values. The secular elite from within Iraq joined their voices, and the slogans in the protests could easily be turned into anti-Islamic sentiments. The conservative political parties, such as SCIRI, seized on the opportunity to denounce the protests against Resolution 137 as being orchestrated by Western feminists, therefore reducing the significance of the organic outrage among Iraqi women at this assault on their rights.

At the same time, women in the conservative areas believed they were being pushed into a defensive position. They believed firmly in Islamic law, and they were confident that Islamic law was the best vehicle to protect their rights. They instantly jumped to the other side of the spectrum and called for all personal status laws to be rooted in Islamic law. The debate began the division between two extremes: secular versus Islamic law, pro-women versus pro-family.

Women’s rights, which had once been a unifying factor, became a source of conflict. Both extremes were in the minority, and the majority of Iraqi women were torn. When political parties would present the debate as simply choosing Islam over secularism, the vast majority chose Islam. When secularists would outline the rights that would be lost to them, the women grew fearful. Iraqi women wanted to protect their rights, but they did not want to lose their Islamic identity.

Most important, as the attacks linking women’s humiliation to Islam grew, even the most liberal women felt a powerful, prideful urge to debunk the anti-Islamic myths. I joined the women in the middle. After all, this was a struggle I had faced my entire life. Th e balance between my Islamic beliefs and my identity with the Western concepts of democracy and freedom was a trapeze act. For Iraqi women these values were being presented as mutually exclusive. Women were being told they could only make one choice. In the true spirit of the American dream, I wanted it all. I wanted Iraqi women to be able to protect their rights through the rule of law based on the best global practices. I also saw the need for their rights to be defended by using Islamic interpretations to ensure traction on the community level. In other words, what good did it do to have a law that set the marriage age at sixteen when there was no way the government could enforce it? In addition to the law, there needed to be an awareness that demonstrated the need to protect girls from the dangers that early marriage could bring to them and their families.

The problem with Resolution 137 was not simply that Shari’a law was being introduced into personal status matters; the core problem was that there was no attempt to define Shari’a law.

Whose interpretations were going to be used? Women would be left vulnerable to the educational limitation and understanding of the local religious clerics. A well-versed religious cleric in Najaf could make a liberal pro-women judgment on inheritance, while a cleric in Basra would deny any women any rights. Without an agreement on the system to be implemented, judgments on women’s affairs would be completely arbitrary.

The term Shari’a law was being used as if it had a predefined monolithic classification. There was a legitimate fear that this understanding could lead to serious violations of women’s rights, such as denial of education, forced early marriage, domestic violence, execution by stoning, and public flogging.

The division over Resolution 137 caused the Iraqi women’s rights movement to lose its comparative advantage of having a wide membership base. Whereas the first few months of the occupation had required only a distinction between Baathist and non-Baathist, finger wagging over sectarian and ethnic divides was now becoming finger wagging over religious and ethnic divides. She is a Shia. She is a Sunni. She is a Kurd. These phrases were becoming more and more frequent and often took on a derogatory tone.

In some instances, the divide centered on attire. Women would quickly label one another based on how much or how little the other wore. A woman who was covered from head to toe would be dismissed as a backward puppet of the Shia conservatives, whereas women who were uncovered were seen as pawns of the Western feminists.

Over time, one’s clothing began to play an even greater role. The magnificence of Iraqi civil society in the early months had been the coexistence of women from different backgrounds, each dressed in a unique way to symbolize her individual comfort level. Now the same women who, a few months earlier, had been sitting next to one another and debating everything from integrating women into the political system to revamping the curriculum in the primary schools were openly attacking one another. It only made it more and more difficult for women to identify their true allies.

I felt that the debate over Islamic and secular values greatly minimized the larger danger of the resolution. The issue was being minimized as a women’s issue alone, but it struck at the very fabric of the newly emerging civil society in Iraq. I would often reiterate to U.S. officials that women should be used as a barometer of success inside Iraq. The status of women highlighted the progress, or lack thereof, of Iraqi society on several levels. Nothing better exemplified this than Resolution 137. In the early months on the ground, any talk of Iraq’s becoming another Islamic state, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, had been dismissed by political analysts and local Iraqis alike. Iraq’s history boasted a strong secular legacy, with the understanding that religion belonged in the home, not in the public sphere, and particularly not in the political sphere.

Resolution 137 strongly challenged that assumption. At the same time, the introduction of the resolution in December 2003 highlighted the beginnings of rising tensions between the ethnic and sectarian divides. The impact on the women’s movement was a microcosm of the larger impact on the country as a whole. The introduction of laws being interpreted by each sect foreshadowed the future divides between Iraqi nationals. The 1959 personal status laws had been rooted in secular law, but this whole situation foreshadowed an internal struggle for the entire country.

It was the first introduction of formal sectarianism as the foundational base of social and political life in Iraq. In the end, Resolution 137 was repealed. But over subsequent years it would reappear in new forms, making it clear that Iraqi women had won only a minor battle. The war was yet to begin.

Excerpt from Barefoot in Baghdad by Manal Omar used with permission from the publisher (Sourcebooks).

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