August 31, 2005

Cornell Research Fellow Contributes to Iraqi Constitution

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A member of the Cornell community has been involved in shaping the controversial Iraqi constitution, a draft of which was released to the public last week. Nimat Hafez Barazangi, a research fellow in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, has contributed her opinions on the defense of women’s rights in the new Iraq.

A renowned scholar on gender in the Qu’ran, Barazangi is author of the critically acclaimed book, “Woman’s Identiy and the Qu’ran: A New Reading.” Based on her expertise, Barazangi was invited by the United Nations Development Program to join Iraq’s constitutional debates in January. After being asked to advise on women’s issues, Barazangi reviewed early drafts in both English and Arabic. She then presented commentary to a caucus of women serving on the constitutional committee and in the Iraqi National Assembly.

“Our greatest fear is that women’s issues will be pushed aside” in order to meet the deadline, Barazangi said in a press release. News headlines were filled with controversies over federalism and the role of Sunni Arabs in the new government, but very little has been said about where women fit into the future of the Muslim nation.

Barazangi had five main concerns with early drafts of the constitution. The first version she saw did not prohibit violence against women; allowed the government to bypass the Iraqi civil code of 1959, which advanced women’s rights; emphasized women’s role in the home; limited the number of years for which a certain percentage of the National Assembly had to be women (the provision would expire in two years); and was vague in the assurance that all people will be treated equally under the law.

The most recent draft of the constitution, which was revealed on Aug. 22, has incorporated many of her concerns. According to a translation by the Associated Press, the new version’s Preamble says the people of Iraq are “determined-to pay attention to women and their rights.” Article 14 of the document states, “Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of sex, ethnicity, nationality, origin, color, religion, sect, belief, opinion or social or economic status.” The requirement for 25 percent of the Assembly to be made up of women is no longer short-term. Some of Barazangi’s grievances have still not been addressed.

References to the positions of president and prime minister speak of “he” rather than the “he/she” used to talk about the National Assembly. Additionally, although the constitution says “Violence and abuse in the family, school and society shall be forbidden”, there is no explanation for how this can be done within an Islamic framework.

Prof. David Powers, Near Easter Studies, said that according to his reading of the Qu’ran, “A wife is expected to be obedient to her husband” and discipline, either verbal or physical, is traditionally allowed. Powers said, “As far as human spirituality is concerned, the Qu’ran treats men and women equally, but in terms of material benefits, the Qu’ran reflects the society in which it was revealed.” That society, seventh century Arabia, was “patriarchal.”

Powers, however, was “impressed to see that one of Barazangi’s recommendations was to prohibit domestic violence,” he said. “I applaud that position. It is a step in the right direction.”

Barazangi’s work argues that the repression of women in Muslim society is based less on what the Qu’ran says than on a conservative misinterpretation of the holy text.

The most recent draft of the constitution was presented to the Iraqi National Assembly last week, but Sunni Arabs protested against the version because of references to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath party. Iraqis, both men and women, will be able to vote on the constitution in an October referendum.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Editor