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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
Iraqi women fear for their rights
By Caroline Hawley
BBC News, Baghdad

Women's groups in Iraq are stepping up a campaign to try to ensure that the country's constitution does not restrict their rights.

A woman looks at an exhibition at Baghdad University
Iraqi women have more rights than most in the region

With the approach of the 15 August deadline for completing the new constitution, the role of women in society has become a political battlefield.

It pits secular Iraqis against newly powerful religious parties who want a greater role for Islam written into the document.

"There's very little time left," says Maysoon al-Damluji, president of the Iraqi Independent Women's Group.

"I'm not sure we'll succeed. But we have to keep fighting."

Last week, around 200 women demonstrated in central Baghdad, in the square where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled, demanding full equality.

Activists have also been busy lobbying members of the committee drawing up the constitution.

Saddam-era rights

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had some of the most secular legislation in the region.

But all that could change, with hardline Shia members of the national assembly pushing for the country to be named the Islamic Republic of Iraq.

Dr Amal Kashif al Ghitaq (L) and Dr Sallama al-Khafaj, both MPs and members of the committee charged with drafting a new Iraqi constitution
The committee drafting the constitution includes many women

"We are worried that the interpretation of Sharia law will take us backward and that people will think that, regarding women, the era of Saddam Hussein was better," Ms Damluji says.

A strict interpretation of Islamic law would mean that the evidence of a woman in court would count for only half that of a man.

And women would have significantly less say in matters of marriage and divorce.

"We believe in equality between men and women," says Amal Moussa, a member of the Shia coalition that took the most seats in January's elections.

I feel religious elements are now trying to encourage polygamy
Hanaa Edwar, activist
"But it is a limited equality. There are Islamic rules that regulate the family and society, and women and men have different rights and duties."

Polygamy, permissible in Islamic law, has now become a hot political issue.

"Under the current Iraqi law a man has to get the consent of his first wife to marry a second," says activist Hanaa Edwar. "But I feel religious elements are now trying to encourage polygamy."

Another major concern for women's groups is a proposal to phase out a quota system - guaranteeing women a quarter of seats in parliament - which has given Iraqi women more representation than in many other countries in the world.

Women now make up a third of the members of the national assembly elected in January but their representation in future parliaments is likely to decrease dramatically if the quota is removed.

Activists were also up in arms against proposals to have separate Shia Sunni and Christian courts to deal with family matters, although Western diplomats say some later drafts of the constitution may have dropped this clause.

Human-rights conventions

"We are a pluralist society and this constitution will determine our future," Ms Edwar says.

"It is crucial for us. We cannot allow it to move us backwards and make a mockery of conventions that Iraq has signed on human rights."

Secular women in Iraq have been through a difficult two years, with relentless violence keeping more and more women indoors and many feeling growing pressure to wear the veil.

I am worried - I think the future of women in Iraq is very bleak
Yannar Muhammad, activist
"Things have got worse even since last year," says Rafif, a 28-year old bank auditor attending a recent conference on women and the constitution.

"I'm now afraid to drive my car. I've changed where I study and work so that I can be nearer to home. But we women have got to get out of the house if we're going to change things."

But many fear they could be fighting a losing battle over the constitution.

"I am worried," says Yannar Muhammad, a prominent activist who runs a shelter for abused women. "I think the future of women in Iraq is very bleak."

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