Crisis - Open Forum > Next Story

 Democracy May Set Back Arab Women
 Trudy Rubin, USA
 March 27, 2005

As the democracy debate intensifies in the Middle East, many Arab women are asking this question: Will democratic elections mean that our freedom will be curtailed?

If this concern seems strange, consider the story of Salama al-Khafaji, a courageous dental surgeon who risked her life to run in Iraqi elections. Her 17-year-old son was shot dead in 2003 during an attempt by insurgents to kill her, but she continued her work as a member of Iraq's first interim governing council. A motorcyclist toting a machine gun nearly assassinated her during the election run-up in January.

Khafaji is a symbol of Iraqi bravery, but she also is a symbol of Shiite piety, who wears an enveloping black abaya that resembles a Catholic nun's habit, circa 1950. She ran on the victorious Shiite list endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

And she wants to replace civil laws on "family status" that affect women—laws on marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance—with Islamic laws that would roll back many rights of women.

Welcome to the new Iraq, where free and fair elections may have a negative impact on women. U.S. pressure ensured that every third seat in the Iraqi assembly was set aside for a woman. But the bulk of female candidates were selected by Shiite religious parties that believe women should be subject to religious law.

If other Arab countries follow Iraq and open up their political systems, this will bring more gains for religious parties in the region. This is because secular Arab parties have largely been discredited by association with dictators or corruption. In Lebanon's "democratic spring" of street demonstrations, one of the strongest parties has been Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamic movement. In Egypt, which is witnessing a small political opening, a bigger opening would result in Islamic parties' gaining substantial power.

When Islamic parties enter parliament, women's rights become a bone of contention. "Women are the bargaining chip," says Assa Karam, an Egyptian expert on Arab women's rights who works for the United Nations Development Program. Karam says that when Islamic parties are jockeying for power with secular parties or governments, "compromises on women's rights take place."

Thus, for example, contentious Islamist deputies in Kuwait focused on blocking women's suffrage. Thus, in Iran in years past, when hard-line Islamists were frustrated with political gains by Islamic moderates, the hard-liners demanded more restrictions on women's dress code. When male politicians quarrel, women became the sacrificial lambs.

And thus, in Iraq, where the victorious Shiite list knows it can't impose religious law on all issues, it will likely focus on putting "family status" law under the control of clerics. Secular Iraqi politicians are likely to compromise first on issues relating to women as they horse-trade with religious parties on writing the constitution. This kind of compromise has happened before. But the United States cannot veto laws passed by an elected legislature. Every major official on the Shiite list supports the ideas of Resolution 137. When I interviewed Khafaji in her Baghdad office, she scoffed at the secular Iraqi women who opposed the resolution, whom she labeled "exile women with extreme liberal thoughts." She said Iraq's constitution must be "suitable for our society and customs."

So where does that leave Iraqi women's rights?

Fortunately, Iraq has a long history of activist women, among the most highly educated in the Arab world. They will fight to have a say on the drafting committee for the new Iraqi constitution. U.S. officials can help from the background, but that help shouldn't be too overt.

"The U.S. can press on the constitution," says Iraqi American Zainab Salbi, head of Women for Women International, a Washington-based organization with operations in Iraq and other strife-torn countries. "But if it is too loud, it will trigger a conservative reaction."

Yet at a time when religious parties are ascendant, pressure by secular women may not be sufficient to prevent women from being pushed back.

Salbi worries that secular and religious women aren't talking to each other. She says secular women must learn to couch their arguments in language understandable to religious ears.

A similar argument was made to me by Ferial Masry, a gutsy Saudi American woman who got 40 percent of the vote as a Democratic candidate for state Assembly in California in November.

Masry says Arab women who confront religious opposition must "reframe the discourse in terms [the religious] understand. It is important in conservative societies to have examples." When she explains to Saudi men why women should vote and run for office, she uses examples of powerful women in Arab history. And then she talks of her own experience as a Saudi woman running for office in the United States. Masry was lionized by Saudi women—and men, too—when she talked about her campaign experience during a recent visit to her native country, where women don't yet have the vote.

That effort to reframe the discourse might bear fruit in Iraq, where someone such as Khafaji insists that she wants to fight for more rights for women, but through expanding the definition of Islamic law. If Khafaji and her secular opponents could share their mutual concerns over the rights of women, perhaps they could find a way to join their efforts.

That may be a long shot. But unless secular Iraqi women (and the Western women's groups and U.S. officials who want to help them) can find a language the Muslim public can understand, Iraqi women may soon find their rights curtailed by Islamic parties—parties brought to power through the democratic vote.

From The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, March 27, 2005.

Trudy Rubin writes the Worldview column for The Philadelphia Inquirer.