Iraqi women, including a minister, protested on the streets of Baghdad this week against the Iraqi Governing Council's (IGC) Act 137, dated 29 December, replacing Iraqi civil law concerning the family with Shari'at law (Islamic law).
The new law, still to be implemented, means that marriage, divorce, custody, and child support, inheritance and all other aspects of family law will be dealt with by Shari'at courts. (The law is to be introduced in the new Iraqi family law known as "Personal Status Law".)
IGC's Act 137 amending Iraq's relatively secular family law with "the dictates of the Laws of the Holy Koran", was passed by the US-appointed body on 29 December 2003. "The act was taken by the IGC but it has not turned into a law yet," Hameid Al-Kafa'y, spokesperson for the IGC, told IRIN in Baghdad. He defended the new law as "diverse" and said that it represents the diversity of religions and sects in today's Iraqi society.
The act is still being discussed with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) who retain ultimate control over Iraq. Despite this Kafa'y maintained that the CPA had no power to stop laws decided by the IGC but it could delay them or convince them to change them.
But the act has faced stiff opposition. About 100 Iraqi women led by public works minister, Nesrine al-Barwari, protested in central Baghdad against the act, saying it discriminates against women and undermines the Iraqi family and society.
"It's a return to the past and would prevent women from choosing their husbands, and their rights in child guardianship and inheritance," Zakia Khalifa, head of Women's Progress Organisation, told IRIN in Baghdad.
She believed that the new act would waste all achievements made by Iraqi women over the past 50 years and would leave them at the mercy of religious leaders. "This is a step back. We wanted to have more progressive laws in this phase of rebuilding a free democratic Iraq ," Khalifa stressed.
The women's rights activist cited examples where a man, under Saddam's law, could not marry another woman without his wife's approval. Also, women, if divorced, could stay in the house they were living in and the man would have to leave.
Women's groups and prominent judges have rushed to condemn the act and to voice fears that the law could be risky in terms of dividing Iraq's many sects and religions.
"The new law will lead to different interpretations of religious rules that have been settled with the former law," lawyer, Dalal Hayder told IRIN. She said the new law could take society back to the 1960s where lawyers had to specialise in Sunni, Shiite, or other religious laws.
"Saddam Hussein had chosen different rules from different Muslim sects and put them into one law that even favoured women more than men, it was not a secular law, it was a mix of different Shari'at laws," Hayder explained.
"Not all the Iraqi laws from the former regime were bad. Even the language used in the new act was not eloquent and the decision as a law was taken very quickly just like the way decisions were taken during the time of Saddam Hussein," activist and lawyer, Zakia Ismail maintained.
According to the lawyer, Iraq's 1959 civil code governing family affairs was considered the most progressive in the Middle East, making polygamy difficult and guaranteeing women's custody rights in the case of divorce.
The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which has consultative status with various United Nations agencies, has also criticised the act.
"The Iraqi family law (otherwise known as the Personal Status Law) is the achievement of the struggle of the Iraqi people for much of the past century not a law written by Saddam Hussein. It should be consistent with Iraq's international legal obligations such as the Universal Declaration of Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Iraqi ratification 1986), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Iraqi ratification 1994)," a statement from WILPF said.
The statement added that the IGC Act 137 establishes sectarianism and gives formal power to informal, unaccountable and self-appointed religious "leaders".
However, some 500 Shiite women have been demonstrating out on the streets of the country over the past few days in support of the act. In a statement distributed by the protesters, they asserted that the new law, if implemented, would permit every citizen to express his or her religious background as opposed to the former "secular" personal status law.
"We support the decision which applies to the Islamic Shari'at laws in personal status affairs. It is true that the new decision had some weak points and it needs amendments, but it guarantees the rights of Iraqi women," Fadil al-khatib, spokesperson of an Islamic foundation, told IRIN.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions