24 Thursday, April 2014

Iraqi law would strip women, girls of basic human rights

By Maryam Zar and Zainab Zeb Khan

Jaafari law is nothing new in the Muslim world. It is a form of jurisprudence named after the 6th Imam of the Shiite sect, and bases its provisions on the concepts of “zaman”—time—and “makan”—place. The basic idea thousands of years ago was that depending on any Muslim’s particular time and place or circumstance, the law would bend and conform to suit them.


A 15-year-old girl is married in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003. Jaafari law would make it legal for girls as young as 9 to be brides. --- Stephanie Sinclair/VII
A 15-year-old girl is married in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003. Jaafari law would make it legal for girls as young as 9 to be brides.
— Stephanie Sinclair/VII

Here and now, however, it would be nice if Islamic jurisprudence could follow its own lead and recognize that it is no longer the time and the place for 9-year-olds to wed, women to be raped over the course of a lifetime inside a marriage, and an entire gender to be held behind the confines of home walls until and unless a male guardian assents to their exit, and accompanies them. Those times have passed. Today, civilization, indeed codified human rights, demands that women have a right to self-determination, access to a basic education and agency over their own bodies.

Not so, say the new rulers of Iraq, who as members of parliament are proposing a new draft law to revert from decades of codified gains for women and girls to a centuries-old Jaafari text that would have women marry before they menstruate, eliminate the need for consensual sex within a marriage, restrict the movements of women and girls without male consent, have women inherit half of what a man would inherit in estate issues and pass custody rights of any child over the age of 2 to their father.

To date, there are three petitions against this law, both in English and in Arabic, that have gathered nearly 500,000 signatures worldwide. To be sure, in a world of 7 billion people and rampant population growth—largely because of uncontrolled births in parts of the world where girls are married young and have no education or access to birth control—a half a million signatures isn’t a majority. But surely, it should send a message that the time for child brides shuffling unsuspectingly into a lifetime of abuse with no representation or self-determination has passed, and that today free people everywhere demand human rights for women and girls. If the unsuspecting women who will suffer at the hands of this law were able to read or write, or even have access to unfettered news, they would likely sign on as well. But they do not, and in fact, this law seeks to exert the control and dominion of the patriarchy over women and girls to squelch any chance of an education or an autonomous life for an entire gender to have determination over their own lives and bodies.

So after generations of gains for Iraqi women, who before the U.S.-led invasion could go to colleges and universities hoping for lives that would merge the traditions of home life with the benefits of modernity, Iraq’s women must silently stay within the confines of their homes now hoping the newly installed patriarchy doesn’t yank their rights. The proposed Jaafari law stipulates that Iraqi Shiites would refer to Islamic Sharia Law for personal status issues, including marriage, divorce and inheritance. The law also outlines the consequences, repercussions and punishment that will be implemented against women and girls who do not follow the principles of these laws. The punishments are no less dire than the loss of life and limb. Transgressions for violating Jaafari law can lead to honor killings and physical punishments that would shock even those who argue that traditions are better left alone.

In the name of Tradition, a set of irrational arguments hinged on old notions of personal freedom and the teachings of religion (the premise of Jaafari jurisprudence) impose a damning set of rules upon the would-be victims: women and girls. The proposed Jaafari law would make legal the practice of child sexual abuse, marital rape and false imprisonment. Girls would be deemed as eligible for marriage at the age of 9, with consent in the hands of either fathers or grandfathers. The mothers, who would presumably know what kind of horror awaits their daughters, would have no say in the marriage.

Women would be vulnerable to heightened domestic violence through the elimination of consent for sex within the marriage, allowing what is effectively marital rape. In addition, this law will condone sanctioned pathways of brutal punishment including stoning, mutilation and unlawful imprisonment. Polygamy is also an option under Jaafari law, which provides for the specific manner in which multiple wives can be handled and even disciplined. The law would also strictly forbid marriage to a non-Muslim. In a country like Iraq, where multiple ethnicities live within the borders of one nation and deep sectarian divides separate religious minorities from majorities, this part of the law is a recipe for disaster among youth who dare to find love across religious divides.

Accompanying tragedies are sure to include heightened incidents of maternal deaths among young girls giving birth, infant mortality among families too large to responsibly care for, obstetric fistula, infanticide and much, much more. Women and girls will become further susceptible to trafficking, and child brides will soon be sold or traded like cattle to settle disputes or bartered for goods. With women effectively incapacitated from any kind of financial autonomy, poverty among women will only grow, and inheritance laws will leave them without the faculties to live through old age or to care for their children in the case of a husband’s death.

It is baffling that a school of thought with its origins centuries back is being revived for people who are desperately trying to join the modern world. No wonder there is an increasing global howl against it. To realize that this law is being imposed on a society that has existed under a secular legal code for decades, where the marriage age for girls has been 18 and consent has been a cornerstone for marital intimacy, is to cringe at the stakes for Iraqi women and girls. They are like you and I, hopeful for the future, ready to take on the world and join a modern era of technology and personal liberty. But the ideology that threatens to now govern Iraq would yank them back in time and take them to a day when little girls were brides and women were helpless inside and outside the home.

Today, this world is not the time or the place for this law, and we must speak out to stop it.

Currently, we need your support to stop the passage of this law in Iraq. A coalition of  global organizations and human rights activists have aligned and launched petitions to take action,  including two in English at Change.org and WalkFree.org and another in Arabic here.

To support us in opposing this law, please sign the petitions and share broadly with the hashtag #No2JaafariLaw.

Maryam Zar, J.D.
Founder: Womenfound
Blogger: Huffington Post
Editor: Rahavard English edition
Director: Communications at UNW-USNC-LA Chapter
Lecturer, media personality and advocate for global women’s rights.

Zainab Zeb Khan
Artist, Activist, Humanitarian
Director: UNA-USA Chicago Chapter

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