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Sharia For Iraqi Women? By: Liz Sly
Chicago Tribune | Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The women at Nasar's beauty salon were Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shiite, but they spoke with one voice on an issue that worries them all.

"I'm sure they will form an Islamic government and our freedom will be gone," Suzan xxx, 30, said as she settled in to get her long black hair trimmed. "We've never lived freely in Iraq, and now I think we never will."

"I will commit suicide if that happens," vowed Karama xxxx, 27, who said she cried when she heard that the group led by the secularist interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won only 14 percent of the vote in Iraq's landmark election. "No," she said, reconsidering. "I will leave the country."

As Iraq embarks on its uncertain journey toward crafting a new constitution, Iraqi women have perhaps more to win or lose in the process than anyone.

Since the election results were confirmed, many women have expressed deep concerns about the direction in which they see their country headed. A coalition of Islamist Shiite parties won the largest share of the seats in Iraq's new National Assembly. The parties have nominated an Islamic scholar to be prime minister, and though they insist they do not want to impose a religious government on Iraq, they have made it clear they expect Islam to feature in the new constitution.

Yanar xxx, a women's rights campaigner, has no doubt that the parties represented in the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, intend to use their majority to introduce Shariah, or Islamic law, into the constitution that the assembly will write.

Fearing marginalization

"This was their mandate. It's their policy. If you are an Islamist party, it's the priority on your agenda," she said. "Ibrahim al-Jaafari is well-decorated to look like a Western man, but he has this 100 percent Islamic agenda, and women will be inferior if he takes over."

Though al-Jaafari, the Shiite candidate for prime minister, and other Shiite leaders have said they do not want an Iranian-style Islamic government, they have said repeatedly that they will not allow laws that "contradict Islam" and that the "Islamic identity" of Iraq should be preserved--wording that, if included in the constitution, would open the door to the application of Islamic law in many areas of life that mostly affect women, experts say.

At a minimum, that likely will mean applying Shariah to civil and family laws, according fewer rights to women than men in areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, said Joyce Wiley, an authority on Iraqi Shiites at the University of South Carolina. "I'm afraid it's not going to be very good for women," she said.

Salama Khafaji, a newly elected Shiite legislator, says women have no reason to fear Shariah. Many women who voted for the Shiite coalition support the idea of Islamic laws, which does not mean they want to impose their views on other women, she said.

"Many women choose to wear hijab," said Khafaji, who always wears a black head-to-toe abaya. "It will be voluntary."

But a climate in which religious values are being asserted by the country's government may make it difficult for women who don't want to cover themselves to resist social pressures to conform, said Mohammed, who plans to organize a march demanding a secular constitution on March 8.

The marked increase in the number of women wearing head scarves these days is only the most outwardly visible sign of the creeping Islamization of society that has already taken place since the U.S. invasion, leaving many women living under a de facto form of Islamic rule, she said.

"There are armed men everywhere. If you go without the protection of the scarf, they can stop you and you may get assaulted," Yanar said. "And there's pressure from husbands and fathers. Being good and chaste means you put a veil on. They tell you it's voluntary, but how can it be voluntary when there's that much pressure on you?"

The liberation promised by the U.S. invasion has so far eluded most Iraqi women. With gunmen roaming the streets and kidnappings a daily occurrence, protective fathers and anxious husbands keep their daughters and wives at home. Women have been targeted for failing to cover their heads and for expressing views such as those of Mohammed, who has received several death threats.

These days a trip to the beauty salon is one of the few escapes for women who no longer feel safe going out on the streets. At Nasar's, in one of Baghdad's safer neighborhoods, customers linger after their beauty treatments, smoking cigarettes, sipping sweet black coffee and talking about their increasingly restricted lives.

"Everyone I know stays home. It's been two years since I went out with my friends," said Tara xxx, 22, whose Muslim father and Christian mother say she must be home by 5 p.m.

`Destroying us'

"Our lives have been devastated," said customer Saeed, a Christian and mother of two who barely dares to go out since she was chased last month by gunmen she believes were trying to kidnap her. "It's destroying us psychologically."

"If there is Islamic law, it will be worse," Husham said. "Islamic law is very traditional--women must obey everything men say. It means democracy will be denied to us."

As she spoke, a figure cloaked in black entered the salon, striking a stark contrast with the other women dressed in jeans and tight sweaters.

Tearing off her head scarf and shaking loose her blond-streaked hair, Anwar, 30, explained that she traveled from a neighborhood overrun by radical Sunni insurgents, where graffiti on the walls threatens death to women who don't cover their hair and where the beauty salons were forced to close months ago because they are deemed un-Islamic.

"Of course, I don't want to dress like this. ... I want to wear what I like," said Sobhi, who is Shiite. "When I was a child, my parents used to try to make me wear hijab to school, and when I got around the corner I would take it off. It was just like suffocation."

She only began covering up last month, after she was threatened by armed men.

"Where I live, not even one lady can go out without completely covering her hair," she said. "It's just too dangerous."

The other women listened with sympathy and alarm.

"If George Bush thinks this is liberation, then he should make his own wife and daughters wear hijab," said Hanan, 36, one of the salon's stylists.

A strong streak of secularism runs through Iraqi society, the legacy of decades of rule by the quasi-socialist Baath Party. And it is by no means guaranteed that the Islamists, who hold a slim majority of the seats in the National Assembly, will be able to enforce their demands.

Allawi has mounted a challenge to al-Jaafari's candidacy, and he is wooing women legislators, who have been given a third of the seats under
Iraq's election rules. Approval of the new constitution requires a two-thirds majority, and the secularist Kurds, who hold more than a quarter of the seats, also are opposed to Islamic law.

The women at Nasar's say they hope Allawi prevails, and if he doesn't, they are counting on help from another source.

"If America lets the Shiites rule Iraq, they will make a union with Iran and it will create a very big power in the Middle East," said Husham, who finds it hard to believe U.S. forces invaded Iraq to install an Islamic government. "I'm sure America doesn't want that. I'm sure they have a plan."

If not, Azzawi, the stylist, says she expects Bush to help out.

"He will have to issue visas for America with this new constitution, because we will all be leaving," she said. "Do they need hairdressers in America?"

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