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Status Anxiety

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
March 24, 2014
Foreign Affairs

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Last October, Hassan al-Shimari, Iraq's minister of justice, quietly submitted a draft law to the Council of Ministers for review. If implemented, the Jaafari Personal Status Law (so named because it is based on the Jaafari school of Shia jurisprudence) will fulfill a longtime goal of the country's conservative Shia leaders: to exert religious control over critical family matters such as marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance for the country's Shia -- some 60–65 percent of the population. Shia advocates of the law, noting the decades of oppression they suffered under a harsh Baathist Sunni minority, contend that the bill would expand their freedom to practice their faith. Although that might be true for some Shia, for others it would drastically curtail their civil rights in the name of religion, and deepen sectarian tensions in society. It would also seriously undermine the rights of women and children by permitting unfettered polygamy, a Taliban-like restriction on women's movement, child marriage for girls as young as nine, unequal divorce and custody, and an end to interreligious marriage.

Iraq's existing personal status law dates to 1959. It includes several progressive provisions loosely based on various schools of Islamic law. It sets the marriage age at 18 for both boys and girls; prohibits arbitrary divorce; significantly restricts polygamy (including by requiring a judge's permission and proof that the husband can treat both wives equally); and guarantees equal inheritance for men and women.

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