Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Women’s Rights under Attack in Iraq

by Isobel Coleman
March 25, 2014

An Iraqi woman walks back home to Basara, Iraq, as fires rage in the distance, April 2003 (Courtesy Reuters/Yannis Behrakis). An Iraqi woman walks back home to Basara, Iraq, as fires rage in the distance, April 2003 (Courtesy Reuters/Yannis Behrakis).


As the grim headlines from Iraq attest, the sectarian tensions that threatened to rip the country apart in the darkest days of 2006-2007 were never resolved. In the lead-up to the country’s parliamentary election on April 30th, suicide attacks and car bombings are again on the rise. Now, a proposed law threatens to worsen sectarian strife, and also make life harder for Iraqi women.

The Jaafari Personal Status Law, recently approved by the Council of Ministers (but still to be approved by parliament), could fulfill a long-time goal of the country’s conservative Shia leaders: to exert religious control over critical family matters such as marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance. It would make martial rape legal; ban inter-religious marriage; prevent women from leaving their home without their husband’s permission; restrict women’s divorce, inheritance, and custody rights; and effectively legalize child marriage by not including a minimum age for marriage.

Although Article 19 of Iraq’s constitution asserts gender equality, the constitution has other contradictory clauses which leave women’s rights vulnerable.  For example, the constitution specifies that no law can contradict the “established rulings” of Islam – a clause that opens the door to gender discrimination on religious grounds. The Jaafari Bill would drive a truck through that opening and be disastrous for women’s rights.  For more on how this bill could exacerbate sectarian tensions and erode women’s rights in Iraq, read my latest Foreign Affairs article.

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