Even as votes are counted in Iraq’s general election, a leading human rights activist in Baghdad said Monday that she is counting on the new parliament to defend and develop women’s rights. Basma al-Khateeb, of the Iraqi Women’s Network, said it was vital for Iraqi legislators of both genders to defend the Iraqi “Law of Personal Status,” which protects women and families, and limits the influence of religious courts.”It’s considered one of the most advanced family laws in the region. It’s based on Sharia law, but takes the best (of it) for the benefit of women and family,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on International Women’s Day. “The Personal Status Law paved the way to mixed marriages, to more rights for women — and we need to develop it.”
Her remarks came after Sunday’s vote — the first parliamentary elections in Iraq since 2005. There were nearly 2,000 female candidates, and by law women must make up 25 percent of the new legislature. Preliminary election results are expected later this week. Final results are due by the end of March. Al-Khateeb said the 25 percent quota was a “double-edged sword” for women because political parties choose candidates who are not trained or outspoken, and who will do as they are told. Nevertheless, many leading women’s rights activists acknowledge that the status of women has improved in the Islamic world in recent years.
Mahnaz Afkhami, a former minister for women’s affairs in Iran, told Amanpour, “There are many, many more women in power, in politics, in high-end decision-making. Many, many women, younger women, are working.” “Even in the Middle East, where rights are challenged, there are sometimes more women in universities than men, such as in Iran.”Afkhami, president and CEO of Women’s Learning Partnership, said Iranian women have made advances because the country has a sophisticated civil society, even though it has what she called a “very primitive” set of laws.
Lina Abou Habib, a women’s rights activist in Lebanon, said women are still lagging behind in terms of legal reforms in most of the Islamic world. “Our laws are still discriminatory vis-a-vis women. I think the family laws were not going fast at all … and that is going to be a serious concern for women.” She added: “And now, with the global economic crisis, we’re seeing more and more women affected because of the obligation of women in the region and in many other regions who perform work, which is not recognized and not valued.” Asma Khader, a former Jordanian minister of culture who is now secretary general of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, said there has been significant progress in her country on tackling the issue of “honor killings,” in which men kill female relatives to defend the reputation of their families. Until recently, many of those standing trial for such crimes pleaded guilty under a Jordanian law that recognizes some crimes are committed in a fit of fury — and they served just six months in prison. Khader said that has changed. “There is a new specialized female court that is reviewing these cases, and the latest judgments were all over 10 years imprisonment.”