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The Road Ahead: Women's Rights and the Future of Iraq

Authors: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program, and John Chen
February 15, 2011
The Majalla

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Divisions between secularists and Islamists represent a major fault line in Iraqi society in the post-Saddam Hussein years. Indeed, ideological conflict is enshrined in Iraq's new constitution, adopted in 2005: while several clauses guarantee personal freedoms and gender equality, Article 2 specifies Islam as the official religion of the state and a basic source of legislation. It also states that “no law shall be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam.”

How tensions between secularism and Islamism will be resolved remains unclear. In the contested March 2010 parliamentary elections, Ayad Allawi narrowly won the most votes running on a largely secular platform that seemed to bridge sectarian divides. However, he could not form a government. Instead, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr emerged as Iraq's kingmaker, throwing his weight behind incumbent Nouri Al-Maliki, who formed a coalition government with his support. Though this restored a measure of stability, the tension between secular and Islamist visions of Iraq's future reverberates through a host of issues.

For women, the stakes are particularly high. In the 1970s and 1980s, Iraqi women benefited from progressive laws promoting their political and economic participation. The Baathist regime pushed female education and women's participation in the workforce and politics. By the late 1980s, Iraq had one of the region's highest female literacy rates. All this proved reversible, however, as Saddam's turn to social conservatism in the 1990s, as well as sanctions, took their toll. Female unemployment rose and literacy plummeted. With the upsurge of religious identity politics after Saddam's fall, the secular framework that had benefited women was rejected by powerful elements within Iraq's political matrix.

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