A stroll through the Baghdad Book Fair last month was a lesson in today's cultural norms in Iraq. The books — gold-embossed, neatly arrayed — were almost all religious, and most of the customers were men.
But in the middle of the white pavilion, a woman's voice rang out loud and strong. Fawzia al-Babakhan, a lawyer, delivered a blistering critique of a proposed law that would rewrite the rules for matters such as marriage and inheritance according to Shiite Islamic law.
Most controversially, the law, proposed by former Justice Minister Hassan al-Shammari and passed by the Cabinet, would consider girls adults and thus ready for marriage at 9 years old.
"We know that the state of women in Iraq is getting worse, despite the intellectual openness that women had benefited from following the American occupation and the removal of the regime," Babakhan says.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, she says, there's been Internet access, a growing civil society and more opportunities to travel. But conservative religious politics are also on the rise. She says she's seeing women's rights regress.
Parliament Must Approve
The proposed legislation is known as the Jaafari law, after a school of Islam by that name. It still needs to be passed by Parliament, which is not expected to take any action until Iraq forms a new government. The country had elections last month, but the results have not been announced; it will likely take weeks or even months of negotiations before a new government is in place.
And if passed, the law would be voluntary; people could choose whether to use its tenets to write wills and marriage contracts. But activists worry it would still be imposed on people. And Babakhan, the lawyer, is concerned about the proposal's provision that it apply only to Iraq's Shiite majority — not Sunni Muslims or other minorities.
"This, of course, nurtures sectarianism and divisions in society," she says. Iraq has lost tens of thousands to sectarian fighting in the past 10 years.
Many analysts say the law is unlikely to be passed by Parliament and is mostly a political pitch to shore up support with conservative Shiites. In Iraq's hinterlands, tribal traditions sometimes allow early marriage and violence against women.
Still, it's caused outrage among rights activists.
Ahlam al-Obeidi hosts a radio show about women's rights in Baghdad. She says years of war left Iraq with more women than men, and lots of poverty. Some people marry off young girls for the dowry.
"We are a society plagued by patriarchal attitudes and outdated tribal laws, which are all conducive to violence against women," she says.
Obeidi says the proposed law causes her intense pain, especially when she thinks of her granddaughters, the eldest of whom is 9 years old.
"This is not marriage," she says, "but rather the selling and buying of young women."
Although the Muslim holy book, the Quran, does not state an exact age for marriage, some scholars quote religious texts indicating that it's allowed for girls of 9 to marry. But Iraq has a long tradition of separation of mosque and state, and several senior Shiite clergy have come out against the proposed law.
Opposition From Some Religious Figures
In a hawsa — a Shiite theological school — in Baghdad, close to the shining gold domes of the Kadhimiya shrine, a prominent religious figure also raised objections to the law.
"There are matters which were mentioned in that law that are really unnecessary for contemporary generations," Grand Ayatollah Jawad al-Khalisi says in an interview. "They pertain to old jurisprudence, so they shouldn't be brought up now and pushed on people."
The clergyman says people should remember that Iraq is riven by the worst violence in years, and awaiting the result of a contentious election. This law, he says, is a distraction — intentional or otherwise — from much more important matters for the stricken country.
NPR correspondent Alice Fordham is based in Beirut. You can follow her at @alicefordham
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
To Iraq now, where a fierce debate has erupted over a proposed law that would legalize marriage for 9-year-old girls. Human rights activists say it would drag Iraq into the dark ages, replacing relatively progressive laws that have been in place for ages. But Iraq's justice minister, who drafted the measure, says that it's Islamic and appropriate. NPR's Alice Fordham reports.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Here at the Baghdad book fair, most of the stands sell religious books and many of the customers are men.
FAWZIA AL BABAKHAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FORDHAM: But here in the middle, lawyer Fawzia al Babakhan is delivering a blistering critique of a law that would allow children to marry, and restrict rights like inheritance. We speak afterwards.
BABAKHAN: (Through translator) We know that the state of women in Iraq is getting worse despite the intellectual openness that women had benefited from following the American occupation and the removal of the regime.
FORDHAM: Since the invasion in 2003, she says, there's Internet access, civil society, travel. But conservative religious politics are also on the rise.
BABAKHAN: (Through translator) There is regression in terms of women's personal freedom, in terms of women's rights.
FORDHAM: The law she's talking about was proposed by the justice minister and passed by the cabinet. If voted by parliament into law, it would be voluntary - people can choose to use its rules to set marriage contracts or write wills. But the lawyer says it could be forced on young girls and boys. And, it would only apply to Iraq's Shiite Muslims, not its Sunnis or other minorities
BABAKHAN: (Through translator) This, of course, nurtures sectarianism and divisions in society.
FORDHAM: Many analysts say that the law is unlikely to be passed, but that it is a political pitch to shore up support with conservative Shiites. In Iraq's hinterlands, tribal traditions sometimes allow violence against women and early marriage.
AHLAM AL OBEIDI: (Through translator) We are a society plagued by patriarchal attitudes and outdated tribal laws which are all conducive to violence against women.
FORDHAM: That's Ahlam al Obeidi, who hosts a radio show about women's rights in Baghdad. She says years of war left Iraq with a surplus of women and lots of poverty. Some people marry off young girls for the dowry.
OBEIDI: (Through translator) This is not marriage though, but rather, the selling and buying of young women.
FORDHAM: Ahlam tells me about her four granddaughters. The oldest is nine.
OBEIDI: (Through translator) This law causes me a lot of pain because some families will do that to their daughters. And I am sure it will become a matter of selling and buying.
FORDHAM: Technically it does say in some religious texts that a girl achieves maturity at nine. But Iraq has a tradition of separation of mosque and state.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)
FORDHAM: Even in a Hawza, a Shiite religious seminary in Baghdad, there's criticism of the proposed law.
Sheikh Jawad al Khalisi there, a Grand Ayatollah, the highest level of Shiite scholarship.
SHEIKH JAWAD AL KHALISI: (Through translator) There are matters which were mentioned in that law that are really unnecessary for contemporary generations. They pertain to old jurisprudence, so they shouldn't be brought up now and pushed on people. And some are trying to impose it on society.
FORDHAM: He says it's simple: Iraq is riven by the worst violence in years and awaiting the result of a contentious election. This law is a distraction, intentional or otherwise, from much more important matters for the stricken country.
Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.