Iraq: Women’s rights pushed back

The invasion and occupation of Iraq has resulted in the deaths and suffering of millions of ordinary Iraqis. Among these are the increasing attacks on women’s lives, their rights and conditions.

The increase in rape and physical violence towards women by men known to them and strangers is a typical result of war everywhere, made worse in Iraq by the collapse of society following the invasion. Women and girls have also been kidnapped, raped and killed by gangs in a lawless environment.

While criticism has been raised about the proposed constitution’s reference to using Islamic law to further oppress women, the truth is that this is already a reality for many women and girls in Iraq today.

In Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle the reactionary nature of the Sunni Islamist insurgent forces is forcing women and girls to wear the veil, using physical and acid attacks to enforce this.

The dominant Shia forces who want to create a form of Islamist state in Iraq are also imposing strict religious dress codes on women and denying them rights.

Fear of violence from the occupation and insurgency combined with the oppressive reactionary Islamists are forcing many women to give up their jobs and schooling. Thousands of female university students have already given up their studies.

Iraqi women in prison often experience torture and sexual abuse. The American Civil Liberties Union have reported more than a dozen cases of rape and abuse of detainees.

In fear of family honour killings (where women are killed by male members of the family if they are accused of immoral behaviour) more women are having dangerous backstreet abortions. This reflects the growing forced Islamicisation of Iraqi life.

Amnesty International says it "is concerned that interpretations of Islamic law may be used to perpetuate discrimination against women" and have documented many cases of attacks on women.

Women are warned not to go out unveiled, or to wear make-up or to mix with men – which along with fear of daily violence from the occupation and insurgency – results in women being more and more confined to their homes.

Haifa Zangara, a former prisoner of Saddam’s regime, describes the daily struggle of women to obtain fuel, food and medication. "For most women, simply to venture onto the street is to risk being attacked or kidnapped for profit or revenge."

New constitution

Women’s groups in Iraq have consistently been demanding and campaigning for the new constitution to recognise the full equality of women. In July, 200 women activists bravely demonstrated in Baghdad against the lack of rights for women in the constitution.

With the constitution being put to a referendum, have their concerns been met?

The introduction of the constitution promises to "pay attention to women and their rights" and Article 14 states that "Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of sex, ethnicity, nationality, origin, colour, religion, sect, belief, opinion or social economic status."

However, Article 2 states: "Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation" and Article 90 (2nd) says: "The Supreme Federal Court will be made up of a number of judges and experts in Sharia (Islamic Law) and law."

Some Islamists wanted Islam to be the main source of legislation but the wording of the constitution describing Islam as a basic source of legislation is only a question of degree.

Even if the constitution is interpreted liberally, then the reality on the ground is leading to increasing clampdown on women’s rights.

Houzan Mahmoud (head of the Organsiation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq), explains that the drafting committee of the constitution is dominated by religious, ethnic and tribal figures. She protests that "neither the US nor the Islamists are our liberators."

Mitchell Prothero, a journalist based in Lebanon, blames the "religious and ethnic power grab" in Iraq for the worsening conditions of women. She cites areas of women’s rights that will be weakened under the new constitution: divorce without husband’s consent, custody of older male children, inheritance rights and not being equal to men in the eyes of the law.

Women make up 60% of Iraqi society yet only 33% of the National Assembly are women and 17% of the Constitutional Committee – which played the main role in drawing up the constitution. Many of these women do the bidding of US imperialism or the dominant ethnic/religious groups.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom quote a former CIA official, Reuel Gerecht, who said that "women’s social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy."

One female rights activist has said: "America will tolerate any conclusion so they can leave, even if it means destroying women’s rights and civil liberties. They have left us a regime like the Taliban."


From the 1970 Iraqi constitution till the 1990s family law in Iraq was relatively progressive, particularly compared to other countries in the Middle East. The Iraqi constitution declared all women and men equal before the law.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a period of economic growth, more women became educated and went to work. In the 1990s Saddam started to bring Islamic elements into the legal system, education and the personal status code – which included the admissibility of polygamy (where men can have more than one wife.)

The 1990s saw their status decline further due to Saddam’s policies, war and sanctions. Now we are witnessing a further deterioration in women’s rights and conditions due to the occupation and to the rise of ethnic, tribal and right-wing political Islamist groups.

Women’s groups and campaigners are risking great danger in describing the conditions of women in Iraq today and campaigning against these attacks.

The Socialist Party argues that it is necessary in Iraq to build mass, democratic organisations of the working class, with a programme in the interests of ordinary Iraqi workers, urban and rural poor.

Such a political programme would challenge the role of imperialism, capitalism and reactionary political Islam. Integral to such a programme must be demands for the reinstatement and improvement of women’s rights.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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October 2005