Iraqi women took their fight for equal rights to American lawmakers yesterday, urging them to use their influence to see that women's rights are protected in the new constitution.
With just 10 days until delegates in Baghdad present the final draft of Iraq's basic law, it is still not clear how large a role will be given to Islamic Shariah law, which traditionally subordinates women to men.
"The [American] men and women, the brave people who went there to free [Iraqis] from Saddam [Hussein], they didn't free them to put them under another dictatorship; that is very clear to all of us," said Basma Fakri, president of the Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq.
During an appearance in Washington yesterday, she said it was entirely appropriate for President Bush, the Senate and House to let Iraq's constitutional negotiators know "that Iraq should be free."
"That was the mission. We don't want to go back in time, we don't want to create another dictatorship. That should be clear and loud to the Iraqi government and to the constitutional committee," she said.
The appeal has had some success in Washington, where the House passed a resolution last week that "strongly encourages Iraq's Transitional National Assembly to adopt a constitution that grants women equal rights under the law and to work to protect such rights."
The resolution also "pledges to support the efforts of Iraqi women to fully participate in a democratic Iraq."
However, with Congress in recess during the crucial last two weeks of the constitution-writing process, little more pressure is likely. Calls to several congressional offices yesterday found mainly staffers who were unwilling or unable to comment on the issue.
One exception was the office of Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican. Spokesman Dan Scandling said Mr. Wolf sent a letter to the Bush administration Wednesday night "expressing concern about religious freedoms and other potential rights' erosion" in Iraq.
Early drafts of the new Iraqi constitution said Shariah law, which sharply limits women's rights to own and inherit property among other things, should be the main source of all law in Iraq. The drafts also declared that women will hold at least 25 percent of legislative seats only in the first two terms.
A draft that became public on Wednesday amended the key clause to say that Islam would be "one of the main sources" of the law. The Iraqi women welcomed the change but said continued pressure was needed.
The women also are demanding that all international treaties regarding human rights and women's rights be honored in the constitution, and that guarantees of female representation in the parliament and government be made permanent.
"The draft constitution as we have seen is a cause for alarm and a call for action," Miss Fakri said.
Tanya Gilly-Khailany, representing the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said women's rights activists have presented their case to U.S. officials, the United Nations, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and the European Union.
Zainab al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress, rejected arguments put forward by officials of Iraq's dominant Shi'ite coalition that Iraq's culture was not ready to go beyond Shariah law.
"Iraq has a very high population of educated people and they are all aware of women's rights, and we are not asking for anything beyond the norm of our culture and religion," she said.
Women had many rights in the early years of Saddam Hussein's rule and were active in the workplace, but these rights steadily deteriorated toward the end of his dictatorship as he tried to court Islamic support.
The insurgency, which has targeted all sectors of Iraq's society, also has hit women hard, killing professional women and threatening those not wearing Islamic head coverings. Christian women regularly wear scarves and long skirts to avoid being targeted on the streets.
Julia Gimadyeva contributed to this report.