Iran’s influence permeates political and daily life in Iraq, especially in the South where close family, religious, and cultural ties have been the norm for centuries. In the coming months, however, Iraq must reject one of Iran’s more insidious exports — the institutionalization of Iranian-style Islamic law that codifies women’s position as second-class citizens.
Since the liberation of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi society has made significant strides in terms of political participation for women and the safeguarding of women’s rights. However, social and political obstacles still have the potential to restrict women’s rights and marginalize their participation in Iraq.
Politically, the implementation of Article 41 of the Iraq constitution threatens to replace Iraq’s fairly progressive civil Personal Status Code (family law) with shari’a law. On the social front, Iraqi women from Mosul to Basra who demand a larger role in public life or refuse to wear the veil are being targeted by zealots from both Sunni and Shia Islamic militias.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has complicated Iraqi politics with meddling intervention that not only serves Iranian interests, but also the interests of its Iraqi proxies. Like Iraq’s other neighbors, Iran’s overall strategy seems to be to avoid a dangerous situation in Iraq that might spill over borders, be it chaos or democracy. Allowing Iraqi women to exercise freedoms unknown to Iranian women would be a dangerous model for the future.
The Iranian ruling classes maintain that their political and social model of Islamic rule is the only relevant one for Muslims-at least for those who are Shia. Hence, it’s no surprise that Iran has allocated huge amounts of money, propaganda and media coverage to support the various radical Shia groups in Iraq. Iran’s goal is to ensure political and social continuity across the borders so that Iraq will not become a magnet for Iranian aspirations for democratic rule. Subjugating Iraqi women to the same kind of restrictions that afflict their Iranian counterparts will be part of that insurance.
Despite the prominent role of many women during the Iranian revolution in 1979, only two weeks after Aytollah Khomeini came to power, he replaced the Shah’s fairly modern family laws with strict interpretations of Islamic law. Women came under strict dress requirements and were segregated in all aspects of public life, including schools and offices. Those who resisted were subjected to abuse that ranged from public humiliation, such as painting their exposed knees with red paint or cutting off their uncovered hair, to execution as enemies of the new Islamic Republic.
Over the course of the last twenty-five years, many Iranian women have fought diligently for equal rights under the law and have paid dearly for their protests. Some have paid with their lives.
Although such restrictions are not yet institutionalized in neighboring Iraq, Iraqi women-even non-Muslims-increasingly face a vicious campaign of intimidation and abuse by militias and gangs that seem to be taking over large swaths of Iraqi cities. In the southern regions around Basra, women have been stoned in the street for wearing makeup and murdered simply for going to work. Fatwas have been issued banning women from driving or from walking alone on the street. In Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, groups of vigilante extremists, many with allegiance to al Qaeda, patrol the streets threatening to kill, kidnap or otherwise terrorize anyone who deviates from their notions of appropriate behavior. Unless the rule of law can be established and the capacity of the central government expanded to include enforcing progressive laws across the country, Iraqi women face a slippery slope which could end in lives as constricted as Iranian women.
Fortunately, the new Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki has made disbanding the militias one of his top priorities. Hopefully, Mr. Al-Maliki will have the political independence and courage to crack down not only on terrorists, but also on those that are enforcing their radical versions of Islam on Iraqi women in all aspects of their everyday lives.
Iraqi women are also organizing and strategizing on how to best modify the implementation of Article 41 of the constitution. International support for these women is urgently needed to prevent the establishment of shari’a law. Separate courts and codes for different sects for example should not be tolerated if Iraq is to be a modern state.
Most immediately, Iraqi women must be protected from attacks by militias and other radicals and must be allowed to exercise their free will. Help must come from outside to allow Iraqi women to organize and advocate separate from the militia and Islamic party structures.
On one point Iran is right. Creating a stable democracy that respects women’s rights will serve as a model for the region. That’s exactly why the United States must do its part in making it a reality.