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Protecting the Rights of Women and Minorities in Iraq

Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2004 at 04:51 PM CT

Last July, I had the opportunity to visit Iraq , and during my trip I was able to talk with some Iraqis about their hopes for their country's future. The work of transitioning to a democratic society is a Herculanean task. Nevertheless, after years of repression and war, most Iraqis are eager to begin to enjoy the peace and freedom that they deserve.

Our goal is to help the Iraqi people move toward a free and democratic society where diverse populations are respected, individuals are guaranteed freedom of religion, and where men and women are treated equally. Iraq is home to many religious and ethnic groups, and it has historically treated women far better than many of its neighbors in the region. We must be vigilant in these early days of rebuilding to ensure that women and other groups are not left behind as the nation moves forward.

Why are freedom of religion and equal rights for women so important to the future of Iraq ? A constitution that embraces diversity, religious freedom, and women's rights makes civil unrest and sectarian strife less likely and increases the likelihood of a unified country. Without a basic respect for all people, the ideals that are the key to establishing a healthy and open society can never fully be realized.

It is crucial that the right of religious freedom be explicitly guaranteed for individuals of all religions. Whether a Shiite or Sunni Muslim, a Kurd, an Assyrian or Chaldean Christian, every Iraqi's rights to practice religion according to his or her conscience should be protected. Regardless of ethnic or religious origin, it should be the goal of the Iraqi Governing Council to strive for a society where all men and all women can expect equal protection under the law.

For that reason, I am concerned that Iraqi Governing Council Resolution 137, which was approved on December 29, will not accomplish two vital components of a democratic form of government—religious freedom and the rights of women. Resolution 137 would place Iraq 's female citizens under Islamic Shari'a law, removing secular protections that adopted during Saddam Hussein's regime. Ironically, Saddam Hussein was an equal opportunity oppressor. While there are many different interpretations of Shari'a law, most encourage discrimination against women.

Instead of passing such a resolution, the Iraqi Governing Council should be promoting a society in which educational, political, and economic opportunities for women are protected and allowed to flourish. This resolution cannot stand. The passage of this resolution would incorporate Shari'a law into the civil code, thereby affecting inheritance law, domestic law, and marginalizing women. Furthermore, some Islamic interpretations would prohibit women from taking part in public life as equal citizens.

As interpreted by some Islamic clerics, Shari'a law commonly forces women to cover themselves with a veil and to marry early. It legalizes polygamy, denies women child custody rights, and permits a husband to divorce a wife immediately and with no cause while granting a woman no divorce rights whatsoever. Worse yet, it sanctions execution by stoning as punishment for female adultery – and “adultery” could simply mean being in the presence of a man who is not a family member.

It is critical that Iraqis are able to enjoy real freedom, and in order to spotlight this issue, I recently joined in a press conference to discuss the urgency of protecting the rights of all Iraqis. We were joined by representatives of Iraq 's ethnic and religious minorities and women's advocacy organizations, and we stood together in calling on the Iraqi Governing Council to ensure that the new constitution includes the protection of the rights of women.

Religious freedom requires that a woman have the choice to wear a veil or not, depending on her beliefs. Freedom demands that women be treated equally to their male counterparts in matters of law. And it requires that obscure and barbaric practices intended to intimidate the female half of the population be kept out of a country's system of laws. I am hopeful that, with enough attention to this issue, we can ensure that a critical mistake is avoided in the earliest days of the new, free Iraq . In the months and years to come, Iraqi women will play a large role in creating a strong and prosperous nation, but only if their rights are guaranteed by the Iraqi Constitution.

Senator Susan M. Collins
February 13, 2004

Senator Collins was elected to represent the State of Maine in the United States Senate in 1996, and was reelected to a second term in 2002. For more information visit Sen. Collins' website at

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