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Promote Iraqi women's rights within an Islamic framework

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Whether or not the Iraqi constitution passes on Oct. 15, one thing is clear: Iraq will continue to be dominated by religiously motivated, well-organized Shiite political parties, determined to implement Islamic law and enforce social conservatism throughout society.

In this environment, it is inevitable that many rights taken for granted by Iraqi women will come under increasing challenge. Advocates pushing a secular agenda risk marginalization, or worse. Instead, those promoting women's rights may be better served if they adopt a language of rights within an Islamic framework - a strategy that could prove to be both more legitimate and effective within Iraq's religiously charged context.

The good news for Iraqi women is that they have one of the highest levels of political representation in the world (31 percent), driven by a constitutionally mandated quota introduced in 2004. The bad news is that Iraq's female parliamentarians are as deeply divided as society as a whole. The gap between religious conservatives and secular women seems unbridgeable. Yet, despite ideological differences they do share many issues of concern, including furthering women's political participation, economic empowerment, and education.

In Iran, following the Islamic revolution in 1979, women saw dramatic setbacks in their legal rights. Secular efforts to claw back those rights largely failed, but religious feminist leaders emerged in the 1990s to advance theological justifications for legal improvements for women. This broader women's movement has achieved some gains over time, particularly in the sensitive area of family law.

Iraqi women should learn from the Iranian example and build coalitions across the ideological spectrum and promote more progressive Islamic jurisprudence. One way to do this is to set up dialogue groups between Shiite and Sunni women to discuss various interpretations of the sharia (Islamic law) governing personal status laws. Religious scholars and international Islamic groups, such as Sisters in Islam, can be invited to join and inform the discussions. These can be modeled around the Islamic circles, or halaqat, initiated by Egyptian women in the 1990s, where women gather in their communities to discuss religion.

Various perspectives and interpretations of women's rights under the sharia should be discussed and widely disseminated through media networks and channels, such as Radio Mahaba (an Iraqi station dedicated to raising awareness on women's rights), and women-oriented publications similar to the influential feminist press in Iran.

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