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Iraqi Women Fight for Rights in New Constitution


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Women's rights are being fiercely debated by Iraqis drafting a new constitution. Among other things, they're arguing over whether or not to adopt Shariah law. Iraqi expatriate Zainab Al-Suwaij is participating in the debate, albeit from the United States. She's the executive director of the American Islamic Congress.

And welcome to the program.

Ms. ZAINAB AL-SUWAIJ (Executive Director, American Islamic Congress): Thank you for having me.

BRAND: And how long has it been since you've lived in Iraq?

Ms. AL-SUWAIJ: Well, I've been--I came back from Iraq just a few weeks ago.

BRAND: And so in your travels, and most recently, what are you observing in terms of how the debate is going vis-a-vis rights for women?

Ms. AL-SUWAIJ: Well, most of the Iraqi women NGOs are looking not to have the Shariah law to be the main source for the social law in Iraq right now.

BRAND: What would it mean specifically for women? Which rights would they see curtailed?

Ms. AL-SUWAIJ: Well, women especially, you know, they will see--like, they cannot, for example, leave the house without the permission of the husband. They cannot work without the permission of the husband or the father. So it will eliminate their role in the society, and certainly they don't want that, whether they are conservatives or they are liberal and secular.

And on the other hand, there is the women representation in the government. We have to have 25 percent representation of the women in the government, and this is passed as a law in the previous transitional law. But now there is another debate of having the 25 percent go to four women in the government for only two terms, which means eight years only, and after that will stop. So that's what we are right now trying to change within the constitution committee and lobby inside Iraq.

BRAND: There has been a lot of debate over this constitution, and the debate is causing some to wonder if the constitution will be in place by the deadline in a couple of weeks. Is it worth perhaps postponing the adoption of this draft constitution to hammer out these women's rights, or are you in fact unnecessarily delaying it?

Ms. AL-SUWAIJ: Well, the chapter that has all of these right--and for citizens, are not really--they are not paying that much attention to. So I think if they delay it, that will give more time for people to look at the constitution in general without being in a rush and they have to give it by the 15th of August.

BRAND: What if it is the will of the majority to have Shariah law, and if Iraq is to be a democracy, it should respect the will of the majority?

Ms. AL-SUWAIJ: Well, look, no one is against Shariah law, but why don't we make it an open to all people?--whether they want to practice it, then that's fine. If they don't want to practice it, it's fine also. And this is the way it's happened not only in--you know, previously in Iraq, but in many other countries as well.

BRAND: But if you look at Iran next door, the will of the people there is to have an Islamic republic.

Ms. AL-SUWAIJ: Well, the will of the government--probably not all the people inside the country. I mean, there's two different things. And, besides, Iraq is not Iran. We are as Iraqis, I mean, looking for a better, new constitution that will last with us, not of this time, but for generations to come.

BRAND: Well, how optimistic are you?

Ms. AL-SUWAIJ: There is always a hope, and we are trying to work so hard to achieve that. We have started a campaign in Baghdad called More Than One Source. And we have thousands of women all over the country are supportive, and also the head of the parliament issued a statement supporting our campaign as well.

BRAND: Zainab Al-Suwaij is the executive director of the American Islamic Congress. She joined us from Washington.

Thank you.

Ms. AL-SUWAIJ: Thank you.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).