- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, yesterday said the country’s new constitution must not contradict Islamic Shariah law, causing concern among Iraqi women that their hard-won freedoms will be eroded.

With only nine days to go before the constitution must be presented to parliament, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari had lengthy discussions with the influential cleric, who weighed in on the most contentious issues.

Mr. al-Jaafari told reporters the religious leader, who exerts enormous influence over the majority Shi’ite population, had said the constitution must “reflect the different components of the Iraqi people, and it should express with sincerity and truth their sectarian, ethnic and political makeup.”

Ayatollah al-Sistani, however, also stated that the document should contain “nothing that conflicts with Islamic Shariah law,” the prime minister said.

Female activists fear that the vagueness of that statement could open the door for future discrimination and sectarian divisions, particularly as the constitution writers rush to complete a draft document by Aug. 15.

“If we want to clean up the language, it has to be in all articles of the constitution so that [discrimination] won’t come in through the back door,” said Basma Fakri, president of the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq.

As Shariah law is carried out according to clerics’ interpretations, with Sunni and Shi’ite following different schools of thought, there would not be one clear, national interpretation of the law, activists said.

“We cannot say that Shariah law is one concrete thing. There are different schools, different interpretations of Shariah, so we don’t want a Shariah that people can interpret as they wish,” said Zanaib al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress.

“They can abuse it, use it to their own benefits. This is not fair to our religion,” said Mrs. al-Suwaij, herself a Muslim.

The issue of women’s rights in the constitution is not being debated in the local Arabic-language Iraqi press, or even in the Arab world as a whole, said Haim Nawas, an independent Jordanian-American analyst formerly with the Eurasia Group, a research and consultancy firm.

While educated women in Iraq have taken the issue to heart, they concede that getting their message out has been difficult, and that many women are more worried about how to put bread on the table.

Mr. al-Jaafari also met with firebrand cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters have had bloody clashes with coalition forces in the past, but who wields considerable influence over more conservative Shi’ite elements.

Sheik al-Sadr said he would not interfere with the constitutional process.

“I have no representative in the writing of the constitution and I distance myself from such political affairs because of the occupier, but he who wants to take part can,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

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