Azhar al-Sheikhly, Iraq’s Minister of State for Women’s Affairs, expressed concerns on Tuesday about women’s rights under the draft Iraqi constitution in a discussion on human rights and the constitution sponsored by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and the Iraqi Women’s Caucus. The discussion which was chaired by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D-TX) and also featured Iraqi First Lady Hero Ibrahim Ahmed. Dr. al-Sheikhly told the audience, “Iraqi women have a big job and deserve more interest from their government and from [the international community].” She said she was very worried that groups will follow their own religious rules instead of civil law. Dr. al-Sheikhly holds a Ph.D. in constitutional law and campaigned for inclusion of women’s rights in the constitution.
First Lady Ahmed, who is also the founder and executive director of the Kurdish satellite television station Kurdsat Broadcasting and worked for the Kurdish resistance to Saddam Hussein, described human rights abuses under Hussein’s regime. Ahmed cited education as a major problem in Iraq as she described an antiquated public education system and said children only go to school three-and-a-half hours a day and spend the rest of their time “in the streets.”
Of major concern for women is the language that makes Islamic law “a primary source of legislation” and the provision that requires that no law may be in conflict with the “universal provisions” of the religion. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report this week, which stated that they remain “concerned…that the constitutional arrangement establishing a role for Islam as a source of legislation…may be used by judges to abridge international human rights standards.”
Commenting on the draft constitution and women’s rights, Congresswoman Johnson said, “We know it is easier to get [rights] initially than fight later.” Johnson also said it was necessary “to send a message that the US stands for equal rights for all Iraqi citizens, men and women.”