He's young, Shia and pro-American. As profiled in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Farqad Qizwini is a moderate, Thomas Jefferson-loving cleric who runs a radio station that broadcasts election information and a university for "humanistic studies" in central Iraq. In short, he's everything America yearns to see arise from the ranks of Iraq's Shia leadership. There's just one hitch: he's against women's rights.
As the Journal notes, Qizwini opposes U.S. efforts to ensure more female participation in Iraq's new government, and once declared that women judges are "unacceptable under Islamic law." He's not alone--most members of the Shia religious establishment reject Western-style notions of women's equality. "Islam is specific on men's authority: man leads and women follow," Sheik Ahmed Darwash al-Kinani told me over tea one afternoon in Baghdad. Ayatollah Sistani himself has decreed such unfeminist judgments--for example, forbidding women from shaking mens' hands, leaving home without male permission, or forming friendships with non-family-related men. Even secular Shia profess "unprogressive" beliefs. As an Oxford-educated academic in Basra informed me, "Man's task is to work in the outside world. Woman's is to keep house and raise children to be good Muslim citizens."
As Iraq's Shia slowly assume power, Western observers are scrutinizing their leaders' comments about America, the role of religion in government and relations with Iran. Missing from that analysis, however, is concern about Shia attitudes toward women. Unlike their apparently moderate positions on political matters, their stance on gender equality remains rooted in shari'a, or Islamic law. In Basra, Sheikh Aodha al-Obaydi, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) told me, "We believe women's rights must follow shari'a." It's for their own good, al Kinani emphasized: "Under shari'a, women are treated like precious gems in a jewel box."
More like prisoners in a theocratic cage. From the Western perspective, shari'a is thoroughly anti-feminist. For instance, the code permits men polygamy, divorce by repudiation and the right to inherit twice as much as females; the Shia version even allows religiously-sanctioned adultery, or muta'a ("temporary marriages"), in which married Muslim men can enjoy the conjugal benefits of another woman in return for furnishing her with money or property. (Most cultures have another name for this arrangement.) Conversely, the same code denies women the ability to choose husbands, travel freely, or wear anything but cloaks to cover their bodies. "Shari'a oppresses women, it is against human rights," Iraqi feminist firebrand Yanar Mohammad once told me.
How serious are Shia leaders about imposing shari'a? Serious enough to have nearly accomplished it. On December 29, 2003, the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council passed Resolution 137, which would have replaced Iraq's relatively progressive 1959 "Family Law" regarding women with shari'a. Fortunately. Paul Bremer refused to sign the measure, preventing its implementation.
But the story is not over. A major instigator behind Resolution 137 was SCIRI leader Abdul al-Hakim, who served at the time as the GC's chairman. As I've noted before, SCIRI wields major influence in southern Iraq, where women are increasingly covering themselves, and conservatives frequently post signs with such exhortations as "Hejab is the most beautiful accessory for women." Moreover, Hakim himself is the frontrunner to become Iraq's next prime minister after the January elections. His postion on women's rights, the role of shari'a and whether he will agree to U.S. pressures to set aside 25 percent of Iraq's new parliament for women in ominously vague.
Many observers--such as myself--glean what little optimism we can about the upcoming elections mainly from Shia assurances of moderation. These assurances, however, encourage us to perceive men like Qizwini, Sistani and Hakim as Western-style democrats. They are not. Especially when it comes to feminism, Shia leaders are products of their male-dominated religion Modern democracy, however, transcends religion to include all men and women--something the West must stress to the January victors.
In the wake of the Civil War, the North found itself "occupying"--or reconstructing--the shattered Confederacy. Weary of the cost, and eager to withdraw its troops, the Union ended its efforts to establish the rule of civil rights throughout the south with the so-called "Compromise of 1877." Abandoned to white supremacy--a form of tribalism often supported from the pulpit--blacks had to struggle another century to achieve equality. We must not repeat that mistake in Iraq. Gender equality is the key to victory in the war against political Islam, from Baghdad to Jakarta to Riyadh. In our rush to patch up a government and end the reconstruction of Iraq, we cannot abandon that nation's 16 million women, whose inferior status and second-class citizenship may worsen under the Shias' new "moderate" leadership.
Next: shari'a in Canada--and what are those Islamic laws anyway?