- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

The final version of the Iraqi constitution is set to be completed by Aug. 15, and drafts currently circulating the country include proposals that could significantly weaken the status of women in Iraq.

As co-chairs of the Congressional Iraqi Women’s Caucus, we are particularly distressed by these developments. We believe strongly that Iraq cannot move toward a more democratic system of government without recognizing fundamental rights for women who make up 55 percent of the Iraqi population in its constitution.

We have been proud to see Iraq’s recent, progressive attitude toward the rights of women in society. Under the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) that guided the Iraqi election in January, one-third of the candidates running for parliament office had to be women. TAL mandated that 25 percent of those elected had to be women, in contrast to the House of Representatives, where we serve, which is only 15 percent female.

In January, we traveled to Amman, Jordan, to meet with many of the women running for election to Iraq’s interim parliament. We were impressed by the level of commitment and personal sacrifice on the part of these women. They put themselves and their families at considerable risk — facing death threats and assassination attempts — as they sought to make an historic change in the future of their country. Their courage deserves a society that honors their bravery and sacrifice.

But according to recent media reports, drafts of the soon-to-be established constitution would put basic human rights for women in jeopardy and, in addition, would eliminate requirements that ensure women are included as 25 percent of Iraq’s parliament.

Some of the drafts include fundamentalist Sharia law, which would require that issues like marriage and divorce be subject to the law of each family’s religion or sect. Sharia law would preclude Iraqi women from holding jobs, serving in high office and traveling without a male relative. Instead of a nationwide law protecting women’s rights in these matters, the women of Iraq would be subject to the dictates of varying religious beliefs. This standard flies in the face of the more reasonable TAL guidelines that suggest that religion can be one source of law, but not the only foundation.

In addition, we have been alarmed to hear that some drafts of the constitution would eliminate the current requirement that women make up a quarter of the Iraqi parliament. Instead of reducing the participation of women in government, we have called on the Iraqi National Assembly to increase the number of women on the constitution-drafting committee so that it mirrors the overall proportion of women in the legislature.

We believe that the fate of the Iraqi women is closely tied to the future of their country. If their rights are restricted and their freedoms withdrawn, Iraqis will be turning back the clock on women’s rights for their country and the region.

In recent weeks, hundreds of Iraqi women have protested the actions of the constitution-drafting committee and said they would lobby to remove the restrictions the draft of the current constitution places on them.

We believe that the Administration should do all it can through the State Department or other appropriate contacts to provide advice and recommendations on the substance of the constitution to the drafting committee, so that this landmark document does not discriminate against women. We’ve been successful in generating support for this position in the House of Representatives, which passed a resolution we offered, urging equitable treatment of women in the constitution. Our Senate counterparts are also taking up this call — but we must act promptly, before a draft constitution is selected and finalized.

We cannot standby while Iraqis limit freedom to only half their population; we must assist these courageous women.

We hope that the brave efforts of the women who ran for office in Iraq and those who have sought opportunities for democracy will not be in vain.

Reps. Kay Granger, a Texas Republican, and Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat, co-chair the Iraqi Women’s Caucus. They recently sponsored a resolution that encourages the Iraqi National Assembly to adopt a constitution that grants women equal rights under the law. The resolution passed a 435-0 vote.

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