While states often cite the law as a measure to maintain order, they regularly use it as an apparatus to maintain corruption and deepen inequalities. In post-2003 Iraq, the ethnosectarian political quota system has been founded “to promote representation in government” which has never been truly fulfilled till this day. Instead, political parties have been using the quota system to demand seats for their members under the guise of representation, with complete disregard for minorities. Women are allowed entry into the political arena only if they are affiliated with hegemonic parties and serve party interests. Otherwise, this scheme is designed to hinder women’s progress.
In fact, this system is sextarian – a term coined by feminist scholar Maya Mikdashi. This means the system is defined not only by ethnic, religious, and sectarian difference, but also based on sexual difference. Like all forms of prejudice such as racism and Islamophobia, sectarianism is gendered. Identity politics are played out on gender norms and relations – and as is usually the case – on women’s bodies. A sextarian system like the one in Iraq asserts its power through both sectarian and gender division, visible through legal and non-legal means.
Al-Fadhila Party has led a campaign targeting women and girls, pushing for amendments to Iraq’s Personal Status Law.
For two consecutive election cycles, al-Fadhila Party (or Islamic Virtue Party) has led a campaign targeting women and girls, pushing a bill that makes amendments to Iraq’s Personal Status Law, which governs how religious and civil courts settle disputes related to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody. Although unlegislated and rejected by parliament vote, it has been dubbed the “Jafari Law” in an alleged attempt to represent Jafari or Shia “values”. It remains in the Iraqi consciousness as an existing threat to women’s and girls’ rights.
Its most contentious component was the attempt to legislate underage marriage. This received widespread outrage from the public, and especially from Najaf’s Shia seminary, for a variety of reasons, primarily the obvious pedophilic as well as sectarian nature of the bill. In a weak attempt to divide women’s united front against the corrupt patriarchy, lawmakers behind this bill claimed it protects Shia women’s rights when in fact it imposed a threat to all women’s rights.
Some male analysts dismissed the objectification of girls and women as mere political pawns in these attempts to amend the Personal Status Law, calling it a “political stunt”. Others argued that legalizing child marriage could help regulate an already common practice. However, regulation cannot heal the trauma arising from years of child molestation. While the bill sanctions pedophilia, it also feminizes poverty more than already is the case. Global studies have demonstrated a direct link between child marriage and high reproductive rates, poverty, female illiteracy, divorce and suicide rates.
Approximately 40 percent of Iraqis are under 14 years of age, and one in five girls is married by the age of 18.
According to UNICEF, approximately 40 percent of Iraqis are under 14 years of age, and one in five girls is married by the age of 18. High child marriage rates arise from poverty, conflict, and patriarchal traditions. With the legalization of child marriage, these rates – and rates of reproduction – could fast increase. Iraq’s population is expected to mushroom from 38 to 50 million in 10 years’ time. This is among the world’s fastest population growths, faced by stunted development in most sectors. It will create immense economic strain, increasing the ratio between state resources and the population. According to the Iraqi Economists Network, over 20 percent of the population are widows and orphans, and over 35 percent of Iraq’s population lives in poverty. These numbers have mushroomed since the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham/Syria (ISIS) entered the scene.
Poverty and conflict expose girls to an increased risk of illiteracy. Sixty percent of girls aged 14 and 18 are not enrolled in secondary school. Among those internally displaced, they are 50 percent less likely than boys to get schooling. When girls are denied education, their well-being, future employment prospects, earning potential, and even relationships are jeopardized.
A 2016 Baghdad study revealed most suicides were by women aged 20 to 30, who had married young and been denied education.
Between 2004 and 2014, one out of 2.5 million marriages ended in divorce, not including unregistered, child marriages. This rate is directly attributed to poverty and the young age of marriage; among other things. Additionally, according to a 2016 Baghdad study, most suicides were committed by women aged 20 to 30 years old who had married young and been denied education. They take their lives, sometimes immolating themselves in their bedrooms—symbolizing despair in married life.
Suicide is also common in some government-run women’s shelters. In 2019, one of these shelters in Baghdad burned down and seven women perished. Early reports from the shelter’s residents – aged 6 to 20 – indicate women were essentially imprisoned there as daytrips were banned. In an early, unpublished report, its director cited government policies restraining her attempts to socialize, educate, and rehabilitate these young women. They are kept isolated, deterred from transitioning back into society, and suicidal. Whether this case was in fact a mass suicide remains unconfirmed. However, it is concerning that Social Affairs—the Ministry meant to support women and girls—targets them with harmful policies to maintain the status quo.
In a recent development, the Iraqi Council of Ministers filed a lawsuit against Yanar Mohammed, the President of Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), accusing her of sheltering women fleeing tribal violence and threats of patriarchal “honor”-related issues. Interestingly, OWFI is being accused of its own mandate which does not violate any laws. This lawsuit’s timing is of interest as OWFI has been one of many organizations supportive of the October Revolution, which has empowered Iraqi women of all stripes.
Sextarianism is a mechanism embedded into a system of corruption to ensure exploitation and gender-based inequalities.
As discussed, sextarianism is a mechanism embedded into a system of corruption to ensure exploitation and the deepening of gender-based inequalities. The nature of such a discriminatory mechanism makes it difficult to remove, unless through legislation by the very members who uphold the corrupt system. As elections are sabotaged by the quota system, Iraqis have found that the only way to impose change is through revolution.
This series ends with a final installment that focuses on Iraq’s October Revolution.
Author’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series. The first discusses the gendered roots of Iraqi corruption; the second focuses on the deepening of corruption in gender-based inequalities in Iraq; and the third highlights the Feminist Spring of Iraq’s October Revolution and the challenges it faces.