A contentious draft law being considered in Iraq could open the door to girls as young as nine getting married and would require wives to submit to sex on their husband’s whim, provoking outrage from rights activists and many Iraqis who see it as a step backward for women’s rights.
The measure, aimed at creating different laws for Iraq’s majority Shiite population, could further fray the country’s divisions amid some of the worst bloodshed since the sectarian fighting that nearly ripped the country apart after the U.S.-led invasion. It also comes as more and more children under 18 get married in the country.
“That law represents a crime against humanity and childhood,” prominent Iraqi human rights activist Hana Adwar told The Associated Press. “Married underage girls are subjected to physical and psychological suffering.
Iraqi law now sets the legal age for marriage at 18 without parental approval. Girls as young as 15 can be married only with a guardian’s approval.
The proposed new measure, known as the Jaafari Personal Status Law, is based on the principles of a Shiite school of religious law founded by Jaafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shiite imam. Iraq’s Justice Ministry late last year introduced the draft measure to the Cabinet, which approved it last month despite strong opposition by rights groups and activists.
The draft law does not set a minimum age for marriage. Instead, it mentions an age in a section on divorce, setting rules for divorces of girls who have reached the age of 9 years in the lunar Islamic calendar. It also says that’s the age girls reach puberty. Since the Islamic calendar year is 10 or 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, that would be the equivalent of 8 years and 8 months old. The bill makes the father the only parent with the right to accept or refuse the marriage proposal.
Critics of the bill believe that its authors slipped the age into the divorce section as a backhanded way to allow marriages of girls that young. Already, government statistics show that nearly 25 percent of marriages in Iraq involved someone under the age of 18 in 2011, up from 21 percent in 2001 and 15 percent in 1997. Planning Ministry spokesman Abdul-Zahra Hendawi said the practice of underage marriage is particularly prevalent in rural areas and some provinces where illiteracy is high.
Also under the proposed measure, a husband can have sex with his wife regardless of her consent. The bill also prevents women from leaving the house without their husband’s permission, would restrict women’s rights in matters of parental custody after divorce and make it easier for men to take multiple wives.
Parliament must still ratify the bill before it becomes law. That is unlikely to happen before parliamentary elections scheduled for April 30, though the Cabinet support suggests it remains a priority for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration. Al-Maliki is widely expected to seek a third term.
Baghdad-based analyst Hadi Jalo suggested that election campaigning might be behind the proposal.
“Some influential Shiite politicians have the impression that they should do their best to make any achievement that would end the injustice that had been done against the Shiites in the past,” Jalo said.
The formerly repressed Shiite majority came to power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime. Since then, Shiite religious and political leaders have encouraged followers to pour in millions into streets for religious rituals, a show of their strength.
Written By: AP / Sameer N. Yacoub and Sinan Salaheddin
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