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Sharia, Women’s Rights, and the Iraqi Constitution [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]

Speakers: Nathan Brown, Senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Haleh Esfandiari, Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Presider: Isobel Coleman, Senior fellow, U.S. policy, Council on Foreign Relations
October 11, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

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RushCouncil on Foreign Relations
New York, NY

 

ISOBEL COLEMAN: (in progress)—as you all know, the Iraqi Constitution is up for a referendum vote this Saturday. And we have two distinguished speakers here, both of whom are two experts on the constitutional situation in Iraq. And let me just briefly introduce them.

I have Dr. Haleh Esfandiari here, who is from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and Haleh has been a wonderful friend and colleague over the years and has a very distinguished background in women’s rights for a long time, with a particular focus on Iran, her home country, and has been leading a project at the Woodrow Wilson Center called—ensuring—

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Building a New Iraq—

COLEMAN: Building a new Iraq—

ESFANDIARI: Ensuring Women’s Rights.

COLEMAN: Ensuring Women’s Rights, which has involved a whole series of workshops bringing Iraqi women to both the United States and to places like Amman, Jordan, to discuss things like how to write a constitution, how to protect their legal rights in this very fluid and changing environment in Iraq.

We also have with us Dr. Nathan Brown, who is a professor at George Washington University and is on leave for two years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington where he has been, I would say, the academic policy scholars’ resource on the Iraqi constitution. Any time I have a question about the constitution, I call Nathan. I know Haleh has done the same. And he has put out, regularly, a brief on the Iraqi constitution as it has evolved in its various drafts along the way, which has been a tremendous resource for journalists, for the media, for scholars, for all of us. And he is a person with tremendous background in constitutional law and Arab constitutional writing and law making in general.

So we’re so pleased to have both of them with us here today.

We’re going to spend the first half hour—I’m going to just ask each of our speakers some questions and we’re going to have an informal conversation and then open it up to the rest of you, who I know also have many questions to ask. Please, take this moment to just make sure your cell phones are off. This is an on-the-record meeting—unlike most council meetings, this is on the record. So, you may quote and use anything you hear, as long as it is—(inaudible).

And if you have a question to ask when we turn to the question time, just raise your name card like this and I will write down your name in the order that I see it and we’ll try to get all of the questions answered. And please do, ask a question and not take up a lot of time with lengthy statements, because I think we have a lot of ground to cover today.

Let me just start out by asking both of our speakers today—the cynical wisdom right now is that a lot is being made of the Iraqi constitution when, in fact, constitutions across the Arab world don’t really matter. There are—pretty much every country has a nice-looking constitution, which is not implemented and not recognized in de facto law in many respects. And so, why will or Iraq be different or not?

Nathan, perhaps we’ll start with you on this.

NATHAN BROWN: I’m not sure it is going to be different. I think skepticism is justified—not necessarily total cynicism. I mean, the pattern you’re talking about in the Arab world is probably real. I wouldn’t say the problem is so much that constitutions are routinely violated, but that their promises are so extremely vague as to be basically unenforceable. And there’s no serious attention given to enforcement mechanisms.

In Iraq, there was a prospect for a different kind of constitution, although it was a long shot. The reason constitutions don’t matter much in the Arab world is because they don’t really do what a constitution is supposed to do, which is constitute. They’re done—they’re written by existing regimes that are simply presenting a new face to the outside world or to their own people.

In Iraq, you had the prospect of a different process of really a ground-up constitution being written by consensus of all the Iraqi political forces. So I think that had a deal come off, you would have had the prospect for a very different kind of constitution. That deal, I don’t think, did come off. And the text they wrote is extremely vague, so that’s why I say, skepticism is justified. It still is a little different process than what we’re used to. Generally, you know, people, find out about a constitution after it’s written. Here we’ve had at least a little bit more public and a little bit more participatory drafting process, but in the end, I guess I’d have to say that I would be surprised if this really turned out to be all that different from neighboring states.

ESFANDIARI: I agree with what Nathan said. Iraq could have put together a constitution for the first time would have emphasis more secular rather than having an emphasis on religiosity. I mean, yes, most of the constitutions in the Arab world refer to Islam as the religion of the state, but there are also countries which definitely do not emphasize the Shari’a.

So one was hoping or expecting that Iraq would go one step beyond this and put together a constitution which would be more secular and less Islamic. But this didn’t turn out to be so, and I’m not so sure that even if this constitution passes whether, you know, the government and the policymaker would even adhere to the principles of this constitution like we have seen examples around the rest of the Middle East—Arab world and non-Arab world.

COLEMAN: Bringing up Shari’a and Islam, the constitution does enshrine Shari’a and Islam. And some have said that the Kurds, who were the most adamantly secular group during the constitutional process, punted, in effect, on this issue of Islam in the constitution, because they were so close to getting so many other things they valued—in particular, their independence in the North.

Are we heading towards a system where we have a more or less secular North and a theocratic south? And Nathan, I know that you in particular, have written that the constitution is putting Iraq on path to disintegration. Could you both comment on that?

BROWN: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that there is much—you know, I said before, this constitution didn’t really succeed at being sort of (bargained ?) among key political groups, but it is a bargain, in one sense, exactly the way you say. The Kurds got what they wanted, which was effective autonomy in the North, that stopped just short of full independence. I mean, the Kurdish region in the North—the main question remaining will be its borders. Those are not really settled in the constitution, but it will be in internal matters virtually independent of the central government.

And in return, what you got was a—essentially, the Shi’ite religious parties got a document that tilted very much in their direction in the rest of the country. I don’t think it does so quite so much through the explicitly religious provisions of the constitution. I mean, it does mention Islam and mention Shari’a law, but the main thing that it does is set up a—(inaudible)—strictly majoritarian system in which who’s ever got 50 percent plus one of the parliament at the central level can do almost anything they want. And the authors—the Shi’ia religious parties that authored this, I think, probably anticipated that they would be in a very powerful position. Either they’ll have 50 percent plus one, or they’ll be an inevitable part of any governing coalition, and therefore, they can push through the legislation that they want.

And then there’s still the provision for regional autonomy. If that doesn’t work at the center, they could still go their separate way in the South. And the South is being defined in increasingly geographically ambitious terms. So there’s lot of different options for them, I guess.

ESFANDIARI: Sure, the Kurds got what they wanted, but I think what are now concerns is that—to make sure that the constitution does not supercede their law that are passed by the regional parliament. For example, if you have a secular personal status law in Kurdistan, which they do have now, and then you have a majority in parliament in Baghdad, which will then pass a status law—a personal status law—which might tilt more towards the Shari’a, where do the Kurds come in that? I mean, how do they fight this law that says the constitution supercedes all the other laws?

I think what they have done with this constitution is that they have referred a lot of decision-making to parliament. I went through the constitution and I noticed there are almost 60 cases where they say, parliament has to either draft the law or defers to parliament to decide how this or that is going to happen. So the constitution leaves a lot of ambiguity regarding—especially the personal status law, which is of concern to a lot of women, especially secular women.

We keep on talking about the Shi’ites—you know, the Shi’ites being more, you know, religious, et cetera. There are Sunnis who are—(inaudible)—and as adamant on the Shari’a when it comes to personal status law as the Shi’ites are.

So at the end, you may end up a majority of Shi’ites and Sunnis deciding on a personal status law, which would be based on the Shari’a.

COLEMAN: During the drafting process in the constitution, much was made of the distinction between wording that said that the laws had to respect the principles of Islam versus the provisions of Islam. Could you help us understand why this was so significant?

BROWN: I’m not sure it had the tremendous significance that people were investing in it, both to some extent inside the country and outside of it. It’s not insignificant, but as I said before, I think the real—the provisions that have real Islamic punch or religious punch probably lie elsewhere. But in this specific matter, essentially there was some—there seemed to be some kind of agreement that there would be some reference to Shari’a, but the question would be, how strong it would be? And initially, there was going to be reference to Islam or to the principles of Islam and that no legislation could contradict this.

The interesting thing there is that, you know, Islamic law doesn’t present itself as a set of general principles. So when you put in this kind of wording, what it does, essentially, is do what we’ve been talking about for other clauses—it defers to the parliament. What are those principles going to be? How do you pick and choose which ones they are or conceivably to a constitutional court, if one is going to be formed. And in fact, one is going to be formed—or at least one is supposed to be formed.

The wording that they got was actually a little bit more restrictive than that, however. It doesn’t refer to the principles. It refers to the fixed—I mean, it’s an awkward phrase, I think, in any language—but the fixed elements of the rulings of Islam. Once you mention the rulings of Islam, to me that’s a reference not simply to general principles, but to 1,000 years of jurisprudence.

And you know, you’re talking about specific rules rather than a sort of general overarching principles guiding the legal systems. But then there’s this word that says, you know, the fixed elements of those, which would seem to suggest that no law can contradict those rulings that would be subscribed to by most major schools of law. I mean, that to me, would be the most appropriate interpretation.

It is still the case, however, that there’s an awful lot of wiggle room there—an awful lot of ability to interpret that in all different kinds of ways. And so what will likely happen will be that any legislation that seems to contradict what somebody in Iraq feels will be a contradiction of Islamic law will probably be the subject of litigation. In parliamentary debates when they talk about legislation—actually, interestingly, the clause that is written says, no law shall be legislated that contradicts. In other words, it’s probably the case that it refers to subsequent legislation—past legislation that’s already been passed. It’s probably exempt—not necessarily, but probably exempt from that.

But—so that—what that means is when the parliament sits down and drafts a law, people will be introducing parts of the Islamic legal heritage as part of that debate. Exactly how the parliament will deal with that, however, will depend very, very much on the composition of that parliament. And as it—Haleh is right, what we’re going to see is likely a religious parliament. That isn’t quite what she said. She said they’re religious among the Sunnis as well. And so my guess is that you’ll find this debate going on—carried on—perhaps among various religious parties, both Sunni and Shi’a.

COLEMAN: We talked about the religious courts, and there is a provision in the constitution that says that a religious supreme court—constitutional court—will be formed and that it may have religious scholars on the court, but it defers again to the parliament to establish the laws for establishing that constitution court. In this case, my understanding is that parliament must pass that law with a two-thirds majority. Does this somehow help protect the religious parties from just running away with packing the court, with religious scholars or not?

ESFANDIARI: It has been a feeling again from a number of Iraqi women that I’ve met as recent as last week in Washington, is that in order to stop the courts being packed with religious cleric, they would like parliament to pass a law and specify that women—there should be the quota system, which says 25 percent of (representation ?) for women should be also implemented in all the courts. And then they would like to say that whoever is on the court should have at least studied civil law, not necessarily religious studies—or the wish list, you know, in order to prevent the court being packed with clerics and also that maybe two-thirds of court should be lawyers who are secular and one-third of the court should be cleric.

This is their wish list and this is what they would like to push in parliament. Whether they would succeed, I don’t know because they would like to prevent a replica of the guardian counsel in Iran, which, although has six lay persons and six clerics, but the lay person also tilts towards religious decision. I mean, that—they would like to avoid this duplication.

BROWN: Yeah, I mean, just one thing that I would add is the supreme federal court is a critical structure—a potentially critical structure—not simply for the various (rank ?) provisions of the constitution, but especially for its federal provisions, which is why, I think, this will not simply be a debate between the religious and the secular, but also among different groups in Iraq.

And for the Kurds, if they’re going to protect the autonomy that the constitutional gives them, this is going to be absolutely critical.

As Haleh mentioned earlier, you know, they’re going to be worried that they’re going to want to protect legislation that they press—pass regionally, and perhaps one of the best ways to do that is by ensuring that there’s a sympathetic court. So this will be, because of that two-thirds requirement and because of the tremendous potential authority of this court, I think an extremely difficult piece of legislation to get through that parliament.

COLEMAN: Haleh, you mentioned the example of Iran, and maybe you could just talk a little bit about the influence of Iran.

We had a couple of speakers here recently at the council—Prince Saud, Saudi foreign minister, and also the Iraqi speaker of the national assembly, both of whom bemoaned the very strong influence of the Iranians in this process. In fact, the Iraqi speaker said that during the constitutional drafting process, he suggested to the Americans that the whole thing would be made easier if they just brought the Iranian ambassador into the room to negotiate the constitution. That was the level of influence.

I wonder if indeed that level of influence is really as strong as these people suggest. And also if it is or isn’t, what role have the Iranians played in this process and what other parallels do you think you might see with this new—one—if the constitution is passed, with how things will evolve in Iraq vis-a-vis how they evolved in Iran?

ESFANDIARI: I think I would like to—(inaudible)—one Kurd and one Iraqi Kurd and one Iraqi Kurd or one Iraqi who does not talk about Iran’s influence, you know, in the South especially. You know, you get a—I mean, you get sense that there is such a strong Iranian presence there. But then when you push, you don’t get any concrete examples. You know, I’ve been asking, okay, talk about it. I mean, you see, I mean, Iranians all over the cities of Najaf, Karballah, Basra, are they there? Are there revolutionary guards there? What sort of presence do they have?

I mean, sure, there was, you know, under Saddam there was a large Iraqi leadership with Kurds and non-Kurds based in Iran. I mean, Chalabi had a house in Tehran. He was very close to the Iranians. Abdul Aziz Hakim was there. We know Dawa was there. SCIRI was there.

We know that, but when the Kurds, every time they were, you know, persecuted, you know, they would come across the border—they were in Iran.

So you know there was this close knit between the Iraqi leadership in exile—Jafari lived there for many years. So there was this close connection, and I think the Iranians expect that this is the time for payback.

But on the other hand, I can’t believe that Iran would like to have an unstable Iraq on its border, you know. I mean, an independent Kurdistan would affect it. I mean, there is no way that the Iranian Kurds would not be tempted by such an idea, although they are very nationalists; there are Iranian—(inaudible).

So I just—it’s very hard for me to accept that Iran would like to have—Iran as a government—would like to have an unstable Iraq. Whether there are rogue elements in the Iranian, you know—among the Iranian revolutionary guards or—(inaudible)—would do (stir ?) things in Iraq, sure, why not? Would they like to see a constitution which is based on the Shari’a, sure why not? I mean, what else would be better than having an Islamic Republic of Iraq? You have an Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and then now Islamic Republic of Iran, an Islamic Republic of Iraq.

They will do anything they can to keep their influence in Iraq, but whether they would interfere in how the constitution should be drafted or implemented, it’s very hard for me to tell. I don’t know.

Nathan, what is your read on Iran?

BROWN: I don’t know either.

ESFANDIARI: (Inaudible.)

BROWN: One thing I would say is that I take it as a—it’s a sort of a depressing sign of kind of almost the decline or the deterioration of Iraqi political discourse if this kind of thing gets thrown out all the time. You know, so-and-so’s not really working for the Iraqi nationalist interests. They’re really Iranians. And this has become much more common over the last months or so. Whether it’s reflecting realities on the ground, or whether it’s just a convenient insult that you can direct against—especially against somebody from SCIRI or Dawa or perhaps generally against any non-secular Iraqi politician. I don’t know.

But, again, sort of this deterioration—really almost name calling—it’s sort of a depressing element that really picked up, I think, over the summer as some of the debates over the constitution became sharper.

ESFANDIARI: Can I add one—(inaudible)?

COLEMAN: Yeah.

ESFANDIARI: I think this is also what bothers me, because I come from the region, is that we always tend to blame an external force on—rather on—rather than take the responsibility and say, this is—you know—we messed up. We always try and look for an outside reason.

In the Iranian Revolution, they said, well, this was a conspiracy. The West got together and got rid of the Shah. This was ridiculous. And so, I mean that—(inaudible).

COLEMAN: Just sticking with the—with Iran for a moment. After the Iranian—in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, I think in the first six weeks, the new Iranian parliament passed sweeping legislation that rolled back, you know, 30-40 years worth of women’s rights that had evolved under a more secular regime under the Shah.

Do you anticipate, if the constitution is passed on Saturday and a new parliament should be elected in Iraq before December 31st, will that parliament, do you think, immediately try to roll back personal status laws, much as happen—much as did happen in Iran?

ESFANDIARI: The case of Iran was likely, I think, different, because Iran there was—Iran had a very progressive “family law,” quote unquote, for that—for the—(inaudible). And someone wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khomeini asking his opinion whether the family law—the existing family law of the ’70s—was within the Islamic criteria. And his answer was, no, so therefore the family law was suspended. It was never discussed in parliament or anything. It was a fatwa given by Khomeini to suspend the family law. Then parliament abolished, among other things, the family courts.

And therefore, you know, there was no family court; there was no family law; and everything was referred to the Shari’a. I mean, they said family relationships should be based on the Shari’a, i.e., age of marriage was puberty, which was nine. Polygamy became legal. Child custody was given to the father, or in case of death, to the member of the father’s family.

But over the last 27 years, parliament has gradually reinstated some of the laws that were—are similar to the previous family protection. I don’t think the Iraqi parliament will do that. I think they have so many other problems at the initial stage, that drafting a new personal status law is not on top of their agenda. I think they will continue as is, and probably in the South, you know, in the Shi’ite region, there will be automatically trying to adhere to Shari’a, and in Kurdistan they will continue with the secular law, and in Baghdad they will stick to the secular law. That’s how I see what’s going to happen in Iraq.

COLEMAN: Nathan?

BROWN: Yeah, I would agree. I would be delighted if the new parliament is hot off the mark on any subject. Judging from, you know, the current parliament, which took a couple of months even to meet, they’ve got some critical issues on their agenda right away. One of the main things will probably be somehow dealing with the security relationship with the United States, which will be forced on their plate almost immediately, unless they find a way of deferring it.

So for that reason, I wouldn’t expect an immediate initiative in that area. I think it will be very important to some, but the real question will be after the December elections, do those—some people—how many—what percentage of the parliament do they control?

If we look at the current parliament as an indication of how business will be done after the constitution, and I don’t know how accurate an indication it will be, what essentially happens is the big—the leaders of the all the big parties—(inaudible)—get together, and they inform the parliament of their decision and except them to pass it right away.

And it would be, I think—this is going to be a fairly complex matter because—personal status law—because it will—it—you know, you’ll perhaps have to write a law not simply about what the personal status law is, but about various options for people, what happens when they conflict. You might have to construct or do a different court system and so on.

So for that reason, what I would expect is that some people will be pushing it probably from an early date, but it’ll take a while to get—to sort of place it to the top of the legislative agenda and to really get consensus among majority factions within the parliament.

If we have a surprise in the December elections and we have, you know, the Shi’a religious parties doing extremely well and putting together an easy majority, then we might see it a little bit quicker.

COLEMAN: Last quick question I will ask. What do—do you think the constitution will pass on Saturday?

ESFANDIARI: I think, yes—on what we have, yes, because especially—I mean, Muqtada al-Sadr has urged his people to vote, and Sistani has urged his people to vote, and I think the Sunnis probably don’t want to be left at—(inaudible).

That’s what my read.

Nathan?

BROWN: Yeah, I would agree, and the opponents, if they’re opposed, have to show up and vote against—to boycott is essentially a vote in favor. So, yes I would second that.

COLEMAN: Okay, I’m going to open it up to questions. Just catch my eye, and I will take them in the order that I see them. Remember just to—(off mike)—start wtih that. Also, just introduce yourself.

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible)—Rosenfield (sp), Carnegie Corporation.

This has been so fascinating, and there are so many questions to ask. But I wanted to deal with—ask a small one about the influence—how the influence of the American ambassadors—you know, we hear all the talk about the Iranians, but I’m wondering how the population at large views Khalilzad’s claiming that he had such a hand in writing of this constitution and what that might do in terms of people’s perception of the validity of it. Either of you—both of you.

(Chuckles.)

(Off mike)

QUESTIONER: Oh, I think really the ambassador taking such credit for it. I mean, it strikes me as—

BROWN: (Inaudible)—really right in the middle of things, and I really shouldn’t say was. He is—

QUESTIONER: He did, I mean, that’s basically if he really is, then what does that mean for the—

BROWN: Up to this minute—up to this very minute—there are still negotiations going on, and he’s still shuttling back and forth among the groups and so on. In terms of what this means for the final product, less than I would have thought. I think it does have some effect.

I was struck by a comment by one of the leading Sunni negotiators in August. At one point he said, I don’t trust the Shi’a any more. I don’t trust the Kurds anymore, and I don’t even trust the Americans.

(Chuckles.)

BROWN: That was kind of a positive statement.

(Laughter.)

COLEMAN: All relative.

BROWN: Yeah, exactly, yeah—the least untrustworthy.

The role was, to me, astonishingly public—I mean, absolutely no bashfulness about it. And I think that, perhaps, was a little bit of a mistake and also the—

(Audio break.)

ESFANDIARI:—in a language and sort of try and explain to them where the United States stands on this thing. And it was at his urging that, I think, President Bush called Abdul Aziz Hakim and they talked.

So I think you have had a very active role, whether eventually at the end, once this constitution is ratified, people who object to the constitution will sit back and say, well, yes, this is a document pushed by the Americans. That’s probably what we will hear at the end from all who were not satisfied.

But he has been very much involved, unlike Negroponte. Some people believe that Negroponte’s attitude was much better. Other people say if it wasn’t for Ambassador Khalilzad, the constitution would not have been where it is now, and they would have had to negotiate and talk for another six months or nine months. Better or worse, I don’t know, but, yes, he’s in the middle of all that.

QUESTIONER: Can I just follow up on that? I know that a number of Iraqi women expressed dismay—and not just women, but more secular Iraqis expressed dismay that that the ambassador, in effect, threw in his hat on the whole Islamic question and going back to how this is a bargain, just trying to get a deal, said, okay, let’s make Islam central in the constitution. The Americans will agree to that, but, you know, we’ll get other things that are important in return. And I know that a number of Iraqi women expressed dismay to me, and I—Kurds and others—and I just wonder if you could comment on that.

ESFANDIARI: Yeah, I mean, there was really—(inaudible)—coming out of Baghdad from these women being shocked at the wording of some of the articles of the constitution. And the last one, which happened in the last—(inaudible)—days, was that changing of—I think it was Article 18 of the constitution—which allowed a mother to pass on the citizenship to her children. And the Sunnis objected to that very much. And so they changed the wording of that. And the Iraqi women I met with were very proud of this article because they thought that after Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, now Iraq would be the country in the region—the first country would be able to pass citizenship to their children, because citizenship is usually passed by fathers, according to Islamic law.

And apparently what I hear—I really don’t know—is that the ambassador accepted to go along with this—the change of wording—but with discussing it with Nathan this morning, and we were not both sure whether this article was changed, dropped, reinstated. You know, everything is changing. And if by time we leave this room, which is in the evening in Baghdad, we might have had two more changes—two more articles added. We just don’t know.

But, yes, there is—they are shocked. I mean the secular Iraqi women and the Kurds are not very happy with the wording of some of the articles in the constitution.

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible.) One thing we haven’t really touched on is the effect of the constitutional process of the security situation in Iraq. The hope has been that progress on the political front would take the wind out of the insurgency, and I’m not sure that is going to happen.

What has been your feeling on the effect of the whole constitutional progress, and if the constitution passes, how that will affect the insurgency? And in some sense has the process deepened sectarian and ethnic divisions, not just in terms of federalism, but in terms of actual bad feelings between the different groups?

BROWN: Yes, I mean the logic of using the constitutional process sort of as part of a political solution was to develop a national consensus that would rob the constituency of much—the insurgency of much of its constituency. I mean this is not an insurgency. It’s, you know, an incredibly diverse and confusing insurgency, but it’s not—to the extent that they’re able to articulate any demand at all, they’re not focusing on constitutional clauses.

So it wasn’t as if this—there would be some automatic effect. But I think the general strategy was probably sound but really depended on the ability to have a consensual constitution, which explains the extreme American insistence on getting Sunnis to the table and making sure they were participating and so on.

And that just failed. I mean there’s still, again, up to this minute to trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat. But I don’t think that is going to happen. Even if there are some more symbolic concessions to the Sunnis, I still don’t think that that fundamental consensus is going to happen. So that strategy is not going to work.

I’m not sure the constitution is going to necessarily make the security situation any worse, but it’s—it hasn’t been part of the solution.

In terms of sectarianism, no—again, I’m basing this on how I read the Iraqi political rhetoric. And it has gotten extremely sectarian in a way that really surprises me.

The way I’d put—(inaudible)—divisions between Arabs and Kurds have been politicized and increasingly politicized over more than a generation. And, you know, I don’t think anybody expected that to be immediately cured.

Divisions between Sunni and Shi’a have not necessarily been as highly politicized, and now, that’s almost the central dividing line in Iraqi politics in a way, again, that is sort of surprising.

And, again, the way that I judge this is just how the politicians refer to each other. And if you go back to May and June, they didn’t use words like Sunni and Shi’a. They would maybe have thought it, but they wouldn’t say it in public. And now everything’s out on the table. And if a Sunni politician calls somebody Shi’a rather than Iranian, that’s actually a good sign. That’s how backward it’s gotten.

(Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: We’ve been hearing a lot about how, in the interests of consensus, the constitution as it stands at the moment—and I understand that it might have changed by now—is very disappointing to some people and that maybe it’s more symbolic than actual.

And I was wondering if as it stands now whether you see any concrete progress coming out of it—positive?

ESFANDIARI: It’s not a bad document, you know. I mean, given the current situation, it’s the best they can—they were able to put together. And this is quoting an Iraqi woman judge who wrote to me after the constitution was drafted and finalized that, look, this is not ideal; this is not what we maybe dreamed of, but this is the best that we finally could put together. Whether it’s going to be a unifying document, I’m not so sure. We really just have to wait and see whether we are going to go beyond this sectarianism.

I mean, I remember the first Iraqi women’s group I met with in (2003 ?). I mean—they would refer to themselves as Iraqis. Nobody talked about Shi’ites, Sunnis. I mean the Kurds always said, we are—you know, we are Kurds. But that was accepted because—but the Shi’ites, you know, was—although they were repressed and so on under previous system, they would just refer to themselves as Iraqi later on Iraqi Shi’a.

But then, you know, in the last meeting I had with them, they would—the parliamentarians, the women parliamentarians—would refer to themselves as a, you know, member of the Sistani group, for example, you know, the—(inaudible). You know, the Sunnis would refer to themselves as the Sunni group.

But if you press all of them, they think that having this piece of document is better at this stage than not having anything. That was my—(inaudible).

QUESTIONER: Pete Montsur (ph), Council on Foreign Relations. On one hand it seems the Sunnis are decrying the federalism that gives increased autonomy to the various regions of the country. On the other hand if they had a highly centralized state they’re going to be outvoted and dominated by the Shi’a. Is it every going to be possible to reconcile their political demands? It seems like what they want is a strong central government with them in charge.

BROWN: It’s hard to tell, because when we’re talking about the Sunni demands, we’re dealing with a group of politicians who have agreed to participate in the process and therefore stand out a little bit. We don’t know who they represent, and we also don’t know how accurately—step back a second.

What they were asking for in the constitution was actually in my mind not all that—I mean, not all that far out on a limb. They—towards the end they were saying, okay, Kurdistan we—you know, we understand, is going to be separate. What we want is a fairly strong central government for the rest of Iraq.

We just want to make sure that it is a strong central government. They weren’t really talking in terms of Sunni power. They weren’t necessarily looking for those sorts of institutions that you might think would be ones that a minority would want, which would be some, you know, some kind of consociational structure where every community has a veto. They weren’t asking for that.

Now, were they representing their own community? Were they even represented their own true agenda? I mean, there was—there were a lot of accusations against them that they were simply going to be a stick in the wheel for any deal and that if they got those demands met, they would introduce some more just to prevent the deal. I don’t know.

But from what I saw in their behavior in the negotiations, I was actually led to be a little more optimistic. These—at least people who were brought in the room, who showed up—some of the ones who are at the committee actually never showed up. But the ones who showed up, when they articulated their demands, did so in a way that I thought probably could be incorporated into a good constitutional structure that could give other parties what they want. So I think they could have been satisfied. Whether their entire community could have been satisfied, I don’t know.

QUESTIONER: To follow up on that, going back to your feeling, Nathan, that this puts this constitution, if it is approved—sets Iraq on a path towards splitting up.

Could you just comment a little more on that? I mean, I know some people have an opposite view, which is that this is the best agreement that possibly they could have gotten and that it is the only thing that might hold the country together. It’s just a different way of looking at it.

BROWN: Yeah, I would—I mean path to disintegration goes too strong. I don’t think it gives any tools to prevent that. Kurdistan wants to be almost independent of the center. There is virtually nothing that it can do to stop that. The southern region wants to form; the center has very few tools to stop it.

And if that forms, then you’ve got—and if it forms on a fairly large geographic basis—then you perhaps have started on the road to disintegration. It’s not inevitable. It just—it enables it.

In terms of this document, was another deal possible? Certainly not in that amount of time—certainly not in a couple of weeks. I mean you look at the core constitution negotiation. Their core Kurdish-Shi’a negotiations that go on, basically—to some extent back in April and May when they’re forming—right after they formed the government—as part of the process of forming the government, but really in earnest in June. And then the Sunnis come to the room, and you really only have about two or three weeks where you’ve got everybody at the table.

And so this is—if you wanted to have a constitution that had some way of meeting the timetable set out in the TAL, this is the best deal. Given more time, would they have come up with a different deal? Again, that sort of gets back to—to answer the last question, I thought there were some tantalizing signs that some of the leaders were willing to move in that direction.

And so I—(inaudible)—my bottom line was, it’s—it was certainly worth a shot. And fundamentally could a more consensual document have been produced? Yes. That consensual document, by the way, 90 percent of it will probably look an awful lot like the current document. So it wouldn’t necessarily have been all that different in content, but the process that would have produced it would have probably been one that would have made it operate, I think, a little bit more effectively.

QUESTIONER: (Inaudible)—Rachel. Yeah, I guess just in terms of the women’s organizational capacity—even the importance of this issue in people’s minds, was there ever any sense that people tried to organize around rejecting this constitution because of the setback it represents, no matter what it represents—(inaudible)—possible, it is a setback for women and their rights?

And then looking forward, is there a sense at all that people will judge the last four or five years in terms of the setbacks for women’s rights that they represent.

You know, net net, is Iraq better off today sort of question, while looking at what will result in terms of the impact on the practical issues that will affect women’s lives—is there a sense that it will be judged by that standard?

ESFANDIARI: If you talk to secular Iraqi women, they believe that this constitution is a setback for them. They almost had—during Bremer’s stay in Iraq, they had one incident, which was known as Law 137, which they passed the law saying that personal status law has to adhere to the Shari’a. And there was an outcry by women. They came out into the streets and so on. And Bremer refused to sign that law. So therefore they have that nightmare of 137 always living with them.

When you talk to Shi’ite women—you know, women who were excluded or they talk about themselves as being excluded in being part of the political process, leadership position, and from the religious Shi’ite, not the secular Shi’ite—they believe that this constitution allows them, or gives them, many more possibilities than they ever could have because they feel that within Islam, you know, this constitution is going to allow them a room of maneuver which they could not have had because of their belief if all the personal laws were based on secularity.

So there is this rift between the secularists, the moderate Islamists and the radical Islamist women. But a way of compromising, which I got a sense was that at least when it comes to the personal status law, let’s stick to the existing personal status law, which is secular, because the religious women can work within that law, while the secularists don’t have to worry about losing their rights. So that’s the way things stand now.

COLEMAN: Rachel.

QUESTIONER: I was wondering if you could look forward a little bit to the parliamentarian elections. From what you’re saying and from what we’re hearing, so much in this constitution defers to the parliament, which means this upcoming parliament is crucial in Iraqi history. And where that parliament goes, I think, is where Iraq goes.

What’s your sense of how people are organizing for December? What’s your views on—I mean, it’s hard to look forward, but if you could look forward in the trends you’re seeing around the arguments now, what do you see for December? Because it just strikes me as THE crucial vote, even more important in some ways than this one coming up.

COLEMAN: And just to add to that, there have been some reports that Allawi and others are trying to create a more secular constituency and bring it under an umbrella. And if that has any legs—(off mike)?

ESFANDIARI: As I mentioned, I think there are either 55 or 60 references in the constitution to parliament, that parliament should be drafting the law, should be passing laws regarding the number of articles. So therefore parliament is going to be very important. And I know that, after talking to some current women, Iraqi parliamentarian, they are very busy in organizing, NGOs are very busy in organizing campaign, putting together a list and so on.

What we don’t know, Rachel, is that—whether we are going to have all the Shi’ites once again under one umbrella, which was known as the Atillaf (ph), you know, the Sistani list, whether the Sistani camp bring together all these different Shi’ite groups, including Muqtada’s people, and say, okay, you vote, you know, as a bloc, or whether is going to be the split.

And as Isobel was saying, I mean, Iyad Allawi has been very active. I mean, when I was meeting with women parliamentarians three weeks ago in Beirut, he was having a meeting in Amman, and some of the women who were in this party when to Amman to meet with him. And whether he as a Shi’ite secular and the Sunni seculars would get together and try and at least form an alliance we don’t know, but the next parliament is going to be very crucial.

So that’s all I can say about it. Nathan, what do you think?

BROWN: Yeah, I’m not sure I can add any clarity, but probably just add confusion.

I’m assuming that the Kurds’ coalition will basically stick together and will get the same share of the vote that it did. You know, there’s some murmurs of discontent and, you know, friction there between the two major parties and so on, but I’m assuming that will basically hold together. The rest of the country, it’s very, very confusing.

And again, as we speak, there’s almost a game of musical chairs going on right now. I mean, my hunch is that the coalition, even if it manages to hold together some pieces, will at least partly come apart. Again, with an extreme proportional representation system, there’s not the same kind of push to hold them together that there would be.

The Sadrists, who kind of sat on the edge of the last election, could enter with much more enthusiasm.

We don’t know what’s going to happen within the Sunni population; who’s going to run and who’s going to vote. If we see a significant Sunni turnout in the October referendum and those people then show up again to vote—you know, if they’ve sort of been brought into the political process in that sense—we could see a parliament that will be, I think, a lot more confusing than the current one.

Essentially what you’ve got in the current one is this coalition which is, you know, a loose and diverse coalition, but it does have a controlling majority in the parliament for most things, and they have basically been able to run the parliament as they wanted. And when something required a supermajority, they could bring the Kurds on board. I mean, it is a coalition.

I guess it would be a surprise if those parties were able to hold onto their 50 percent or 51 percent of the parliament in the coming elections simply because there may be more people voting than before. So that will push them a little bit under. So I would expect what we might see would be a divided parliament, one in which Shi’a religious parties still have a very dominant share, but probably have to negotiate with each other a little bit more than they have in the past, and might have to bring other people on board in order to form a coalition.

In terms of Iyad Allawi, specifically this idea of a secular coalition, the other idea that’s been bandied about, the reason I’m a little bit skeptical is that in the last elections, he had all the advantages of incumbency. And you know, he was prime minister, he had—if you ever saw his ads, I mean, they were great ads. (Chuckles.) So if the election were just decided solely on the basis of TV advertising, he would have won hands down. And he doesn’t bring those advantages in. So he’s not an irrelevant force, and in the badly divided parliament he could be part of a coalition or hold the balance or something, but I’m not sure—I mean, there’s been plenty of activity in that area, but I’m not particularly optimistic that that share will go up.

MR. : And it was just announced today that 26 members of his government were charged with corruption—

ESFANDIARI: Yes.

MR. :—embezzling $1 billion. So he’s going to be under fire now.

MS. : Better ads.

COLEMAN: Two questions over here.

QUESTIONER: Hi. (Name inaudible.)

I was watching some of the Sunday morning political talk shows, and I believe it was on “The McLaughlin Group,” someone said, basically, if Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court doesn’t get elected and the war keeps going that his presidency is effectively going to be over. And whether or not you agree with that, I just wanted to know what you think about the leadership situation in the United States as being a factor in Iraq two years from now—five from now—and what you might—what your visions for what Iraq might look like?

COLEMAN: (Chuckles.) Nathan.

BROWN: It is a good question. But it asked me about a country I live in, but don’t claim particular expertise in.

I will say this, I mean, I think the partisanship of the American debate has had a little bit of an unhealthy effect. In a sense I’ve missed it over the war. That debate that should have taken place did not take place, but now it’s almost gone too far on the other side.

And I think—I mean, I’ve been—the thing I’ve been most critical about, about the American approach, is this mania about this August 15th deadline. I think that was a disastrous decision. And I don’t think we can understand it divorced from domestic politics here, of the administration that sees to claim support for the war and needs some sort of signs of success; and an opposition that is not necessarily anxious to put forward its own plan, because there may not be a good one, but anxious to point out the flaws of the administration’s approach, which are becoming increasingly obvious and increasingly, you know, an task.

And I think, as I say, that debate probably complicated the constitution writing—(inaudible)—or the partisanship of the debate here complicated the constitution writing process in Iraq in an unhelpful way. What the future holds, I don’t know.

COLEMAN: I would just add to that, that much is made of the fact that President Bush personally got involved in August, placed a call to Mr. Hakim, who basically said, no. So I’m not quite sure how much leverage we really do have in the entire process.

Joel (sp), is it something related to this?

QUESTIONER: (Off mike)—Bush had already made the decision that he would pull out the American troops by the 2006 congressional elections and that Sunnis were smart. They were just going to wait out the Americans and that we would then have total civil war. And that was such a discouraging proposition. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.

Would you think when the Americans do pull out, if we do pull out, say, in two years that it is so fragile that it will be total—(inaudible)?

BROWN: There’s that danger. That’s all I can say. I think that danger is very real.

COLEMAN: Yes?

ESFANDIARI: When you talk to the Iraqis, they don’t want to a pullout at this stage, because they are concerned about what would happen if the Americans—(inaudible). It’s a very tough, you know, choice for them. They want to be free. They don’t want to have a presence of foreign troops on their soil, but they also know, on the other hand, that if there is a pullout, the country might disintegrate.

I mean,—(inaudible)—insecurity level it has reached the stage where, you know, there is no way they can (envision ?) a pullout. A year and a half ago or a year ago when you would talk to these—at least the Iraqi women, you would ask them, what is on top of your wish list? They would say, pullout. You know, I mean, free Iraq once again. Now, it is security—security, security, security. And the foreign troop pullout is at the bottom of their list of—(inaudible).

QUESTIONER: Yes, Amine Bouchentouf. My question is about the distribution of Iraqi oil, basically. And we know that one of the biggest grievances of the Sunnis is that they’re going to be left out of the distribution of the oil wells. We know that the Kurds have, you know Kirkuk in the north. The Shi’a have Romada (ph) in the south, but the Sunnis don’t have anything right now.

Can you talk a little bit about what the constitution does? Does it establish any, like, wealth distribution mechanisms relating to the Iraqi oil? Thank you.

BROWN: Yeah, it does, but again, those are ambiguous. It establishes a principle that the Iraqi oil belongs to the Iraqi people. SO that would seem to be pushing it in the national direction. And then it goes onto say, the Iraqi people in their provinces and regions, which seems to just push it right back. And then it says that, you know, oil revenue should be equitably distributed in accordance with population. But then it goes onto say that, some correction can be made for areas that have been historically discriminated against for an, you know, indefinite period.

So, again, the new parliament could push this any direction it wanted—almost any direction it wanted. There is this weird distinction in the constitution, also, between existing oil fields and new oil fields. Again, it’s not quite clear what that means.

So I think a lot depends on—actually, I should say on the composition of the parliament. And an awful depends on whether or not the momentum for a Shi’a southern region continues because if that does happen and if you have people at the central government in the parliament who are pushing for this decentralization, you’ve got presumably something like a quarter of parliament being Kurdish deputies who want everything—who will want everything decentralized. And if you have enough southern deputies who are on this bandwagon as well, you could have a radical decentralization.

And a lot depends, again,—(inaudible)—who won—wins—or what the composition of the parliament is in the December elections in terms of party, but what the attitudes of the Arab parties are, especially those coming with strong bases in the south, towards regionalism.

QUESTIONER: Marion Levy (ph).

I understand that there are many different interpretations of the Shari’a. And I wonder how the constitution deals with that when the goal of it is not to be in conflict with any rules of the Shari’a? And I also wonder if there’s any difference in how the Sunni and the Shi’a interpret the Shari’a?

ESFANDIARI: Sure, because of the different schools that exist in Islam—you know, Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali and the Shi’ites. So therefore, the Shi’ites interpretation is slightly different than the Sunni interpretation. And that’s why when it comes to personal status, in Article 39 of the constitution says that people can choose and pick their own personal, I mean, status.

So the question is a Shi’ite woman, let’s say, marries a Sunni man and then they want a divorce. Do they divorce according to the Sunni law or do they divorce according to the Shi’ite law? I mean—or, for example, can they then go and—can a woman go to a court and say, okay, I got married according to Shi’ite law, but now I would like to get a divorce according to the secular law? And I would go through—if there is going to be a secular court.

So it’s going to be very ambiguous. And the constitution, at least so far, has not clarified this. And therefore, article 39 is quite worrisome for a lot of people and ambiguous, really. And parliament has to come up and regulate this.

And I’m not sure what will happen to the past, preexisting marriages. I mean, someone who got married—a Sunni and a Shi’ite got married 15 years ago and now they want to get a divorce. What are they going to—what is the divorce going to be based on, Sunni law or Shi’ite law?

COLEMAN: And Nathan, maybe you can just comment on this. There are examples from other Arab countries where you have this juxtaposition of Shi’a and Sunni law and different schools and different courts, even; or even if it’s the same court, different Islamic jurisprudence that is used depending on what the defendant chooses.

BROWN: Yeah. I mean, this is—yes. I mean, hello, this is just—this is a very complicated question because you’ve really got in my mind sort of two separate questions: number one, what is the relevant law; and number two, what is the relevant court system? And almost any possible combination exists.

It’s partly because of this confusing situation that a lot of states got into the business of codifying law. Not necessarily because they wanted to push any particular interpretation over another, but because they just thought this is an incredibly messy situation where you don’t know what the law is until you go in, where people will change religious affiliations.

This happened, for instance, most—in Egypt among Christian affiliations, where a Coptic person wanting a divorce would suddenly discover that they were Protestant because it’s almost impossible to get a divorce in a Coptic court.

So these sorts of things led a lot of states to codify personal status law. Most of them now have it codified, usually on a, you know—based on religious sources, but with sort of an opting out for those people who are from different religious communities. So for instance, you know, if you’re Christian or if you’re Jewish, you will be governed by the law of your community.

But then the question is, what court system is it—do you go to? Do you go to a specialized Shari’a court system, a religious court system, that exists, for instance, in Lebanon and Israel and some other countries, where the court that you go to is a traditional religious court? Or do you go to a court that is essentially a civil law court that is trying to apply this law? And again, almost any possible, conceivable combination exists.

I mean, just one example. Just—Iraq’s neighbor to the south, Kuwait. If you’re Sunni, there’s a codified law. If you’re Shi’a, it is not codified. The court that you go to is a civil law court. Most of the judges are secularly trained, but they can just look up in this code and find the relevant provisions. If you’re Shi’a, there’s basically a big reference work they can pull off the desk and find out exactly what law to apply.

But again, the situation differs from country to country, which is one reason why I think this is going to be a very complex law to pass because it’s got to affect both the court system, the legal system—what the menu is—and again, exactly the situation Haleh is talking about, specifically in Iraq because intermarriage is fairly high among Sunnis and Shi’a. What do you do in cases of conflict?

And—I’m sorry—and there’s also going to be strong pressure, both inside and outside the country, to preserve the secular, or what’s called the secular, option—really, the civil code—in addition to the Sunni law and the Shi’a law.

COLEMAN: Carol.

QUESTIONER: Given all the ambiguity that you’re talking about, but also the fact that there have been women who were very vocal and active for a long time, I’m just wondering if there are any bottom-line issues around which women will unite? Like no matter what, they’re not going to take it if their rights to divorce are abolished, or whether they have access to education or reproductive rights. Are there are any things that they will have common ground around?

ESFANDIARI: I think the educated women will all opt for a progressive personal status law, which also includes the right to employment, the right to education. And I mean, part of the personal status law is mobility, you know; so you can leave the house, you can have access to education, you can have access to employment. So therefore, I believe they would all rally around—(audio break)—which is within Islamic boundaries, you know, but nevertheless raises the age of marriage, for example, to 18, gives women the right to seek a divorce, child custody is given to women—to the mother—under certain conditions. So they are studying and looking at these laws and trying to push that.

And you will see among the religious women also women who believe in the change in the personal status law. But the problem is going to be in Iraq whether you have enough votes to pass that; whether you could convince the men, who are the majority in parliament, to pass that.

And also the problem of women judges, you know. I was looking at the constitution yesterday and I had a question for Nathan. It always refers to “his,” you know, and it’s not even “his/her.” I don’t know; in Arabic it must also refer to “his.” So it’s—in the constitution, you know, it’s always referred to the male person. And even when they talk about the courts and so on, there is no specification for whether women can become judges or not.

And this is going to be a rallying point for both religious and, you know, secular women in Iraq because you see enough religious women who would like to be able to sit on the court as judges. That’s how I see it.

BROWN: First, on the specific question, I mean, English is my native language, not Arabic. But in Arabic, in the case of ambiguous gender you do use the masculine, so it certainly—it could easily refer to women. Will it be interpreted that way is a little bit different question.

And there was actually in a draft of the TAL—and I can’t remember whether it made it into the final TAL or not—a provision that supposedly said any time we use a masculine we mean both masculine and feminine. But—and that’s not in this constitution.

ESFANDIARI: It’s not in the constitution. It was in the—

BROWN: It was in the TAL, and it’s in the Palestinian Constitution as well.

ESFANDIARI: Yes.

BROWN: But it’s certainly not in this final draft.

On women judges, one of the interesting things—I had an exchange about this, I remember, over the summer—was that the quota for women members of parliament was initially written in a much broader way and it dropped back. And I’m not sure people were paying enough attention to this debate because the initial—initially what women’s groups were asking for was not simply a quota for the—they were asking for an increase in the quota for the parliament, but they were also asking that it be for all positions of sovereignty sometimes, or decision-making positions, and it was dropped back to the parliament. Had it retained broader wording, you would have had a very difficult time arguing against women judges.

With regard to sort of the broader question of a bottom line, if there were any bottom line, I would agree it would have to do with personal status law because this is the issue that affects every single person in the country, okay? It’s not an abstract debate about legal principles or about gender equality; it is something that affects every single person who gets married, inherits, divorces and that sort of thing. So it would have to be over that.

As long as the debate is presented as a debate between secular and Islamic law, however, I think the secularists are going to lose. And this is again, sort of, what Haleh was talking about; efforts in other Arab countries to operate basically within the bounds of the Islamic legal tradition and to push it in as progressive a direction as possible. That’s on the issue of legal codes.

I would say actually one other thing, and the only thing about—on courts as well as codes. It’s not—traditional Islamic law courts do sometimes offer something to women litigants that the civil court does not, and that is informality. You go to a civil court and it is a cold and imposing—and it’s a public place. You go to a traditional Islamic law court and what you generally get is a place where cases are heard in secret, where basically—

I mean, I discovered this once by—this was in Qatar; I asked I asked an Islamic law judge, you know, do you mind if I attend a court session? And he just looked at me as if I, you know, asked the priest if could, you know, listen in on the confessional or something. (Laughter.)

And so they offer discretion; again, sort of cultural authenticity. And where these courts have operated, the only people I know who’ve studied their actual operation will say that they tend to take a fairly paternalistic attitude, but one which says, okay, our job here is to make sure that the weaker party gets their rights because, you know, they’ve decided they’re not going to get (their rights ?). (When they come to ?) court, they should have something like this.

So my guess is, even when we’re talking about the court system, we should probably be open to the possibility that there will be legitimate debate about what kind of court system will be most appropriate.

When it comes to—getting back to law, I think the important thing is to place any debate not as secular versus Islamic law. And in fact, the law that we keep on referring to is the secular law of personal status in Iraq. If you sit down and read it, it’s not a secular law. It’s a law that is drawn from the Islamic legal tradition categories of vocabulary, but shoves it as hard as it can in a specific direction.

COLEMAN: I think we just have time for these two last questions from—(off mike).

QUESTIONER: Actually, it’s fascinating. The last conversation I have had on women’s human rights in Iraq was with a representative from SCIRI who came to argue that, in fact, the programs are very progressive; that they offer opportunities for economic empowerment; you know, they have women’s centers that are promoting education and small-scale enterprise; and that he’s very happy to see women playing more of a public role in the community. And I mean, it’s fascinating because it’s about an increase in the public discourse and in being political beings that, you know, women in the south hadn’t had access to as women in Baghdad had.

But then when I asked him, well, what happens if a woman, having been exposed to all these options, decides to settle her case, you know, in a secular court versus, you know, a Shari’a court, given that there are all these radio stations now with women’s human rights, you know, discussions and demonstrations? He said well, you know, she just wouldn’t because that’s not the right court, you know. So it’s just—it’s amazing to me to see women’s rights and how it’s interpreted.

This morning on NPR they were saying that this constitution will stand for six to eight years, at which time it will be renegotiated, or there’s a process in which it would be reviewed or revised. And I’m wondering what your view is? Because I think, when we’re talking about women’s human rights and gender equality, it’s a very long-term process. You know, it’s not something that happens over two years. And certainly under occupation there’s, you know, a certain amount of, you know, energy that’s happening.

And what you feel this means? I mean, do you see a trend in the Middle East that Iraq is following with women becoming more active, more vocal? And how do they see their human rights and where are they going, you know, between the secular and the Shari’a interpretation when they are religious women, you know, increasingly a greater population?

ESFANDIARI: I think I mentioned earlier that when you talk to the more traditional and religious women—women who come from traditional background—they feel that they were able to carve for themselves a role in the public space because less attention is placed on the way they are veiling and so on. So the veiling is no longer an obstacle for their participation. On the contrary, you know, it facilitates, then, the patterns.

You know, I’ve heard this argument in Iran after their revolution—so that’s a different story—that precisely, you know, before, under Saddam, veiling was an obstacle for a lot—I mean total veiling, not just wearing a scarf—was an obstacle to the women’s participation in political—in public sphere. Now, on the contrary, gives them—this is—I mean, the family approved law if they can play an active role, and they are part of the community. So they look at it as a liberating thing, therefore.

But the same women also are the ones who would go along when you talk with a quota system of 40 percent. You know, the same women. And they would also—these are also the ones who start now looking at text and see whether there is a way to consolidate Islamic—Islam and the Shari’a with women’s rights.

So they are looking. They necessarily don’t look at Iran, but they go—even the Shi’ite women—they go and look at Morocco. They go and look at Tunisia, you know. They see they have this Arab background in common, although they are—let’s say the women in the south are predominately Shi’ite and in the rest of the Arab world you have more Sunni. So they see they feel they have—there is a—there is more—there is a binding between them and the rest of the Arab world.

But what I personally worry—and I don’t know what Nathan thinks—is that if you have, then, the provinces forming a large region and any region can have their own national assembly and so on, whether these national assemblies will not pass laws that are going to be more restrictive for—in the personal status law. That is my concern. I think, again, you will have access to education, you will have access to political participation; but when it comes to personal status law, they might be more restrictive. That’s my concern.

BROWN: Yeah, I would agree. I would just take the point more generally. I mean, some of protections that are in constitution are really designed to operate at the level of central government. And the restrictions on what the regions do have not really been thought out across the board, not just with regard to personal status law.

COLEMAN: Mark, last question.

QUESTIONER: Mark Buckham (sp) from Council on Foreign Relations.

Is there a bill of rights to the Iraqi constitution—separate, enumerated rights—that offer any particular protections or insurance for women? And then, if there are, can those be added to? Is there a process envisioned for amending those?

BROWN: I mean, there is a bill of rights. In my mind, it’s a weak—not necessarily in the number of rights that it mentions, but in the vague way in which it guarantees them.

Is there amendment possible? Yes, but it’s—there’s this process of—now I can’t remember exactly how long it is. I made reference to it. A period in which constitutional amendments will not be entertained.

ESFANDIARI: Eight years.

BROWN: Eight years?

ESFANDIARI: Eight years. Eight years.

BROWN: Okay. Eight years, okay.

ESFANDIARI: Two terms of parliament. Yeah.

If I can add, I think—they hope that because the constitution refers so many times to parliament when it comes to personal status law, I mean, the expectation is that parliament may pass or hopefully—I mean, the women would bring pressure to expand the clauses of the bill of rights. But articles of the constitution, I think, need—they have—in order to change that, they have to wait eight years. It says two terms of the parliament for that.

COLEMAN: Thank you. I think we’ve all learned a lot this morning, so we appreciate you coming. (Applause.)

 

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