Who will protect the women?

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The Independent Online

Like many women from Third World countries, Astrik Ohanian became known outside her family only in death. Forced to support herself and her children after her husband suffered a stroke, she took a job in the laundry at an American base in Iraq. Her paltry wage, about £140 a month, was just sufficient to keep her family from starving. Ten days ago, at the urging of her children, she prepared to go to the base one last time to hand in her notice. On the road from Baghdad to Habbaniyah, the minibus in which she was travelling was ambushed by gunmen. Ohanian and three other women died, victims of the insurgents who have sworn to kill anyone who works for the Americans.

"Every day, I told her not to do that job. I pleaded with her, especially the night before the murder," Ohanian's 21-year-old daughter, Angel, said last week. But with half the male workforce unemployed, for many women there is little choice but to take jobs that, literally, imperil their lives. Women like Ohanian, an Armenian Christian, face a particularly unpleasant dilemma, caught between the US military and the religious leaders who wish to turn Iraq into an Islamic republic. Last week, a poignant photograph of her face, unveiled and with carefully applied lipstick, appeared in newspapers. It was a reminder of the relative freedom enjoyed by women in Iraq, which appointed its first female government minister, Dr Naziha Aldulaimi, as long ago as 1959.

Iraqi women have been liberated from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein only to face demands that they should once again become subject to Islamic law. The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council has repealed the secular family code in order to replace it with sharia. Most young women on university campuses are now veiled, as is the president of the Union of Women. Last August, an opinion poll showed that 49 per cent of Iraqis would like a democracy "guided by Islamic law"; 24 per cent want a fully Islamic state and only 21 per cent favour a secular constitution. "How could Iraqi women agree to renounce, after 40 years, the rights they acquired at such cost?" the Iraqi journalist Inaam Kachachi demanded in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur last month.

Her sense of alarm is beginning to be widely shared. The US government is facing demands for democratic elections in summer, but the vast majority of pro-democracy demonstrators carry portraits of their favourite Muslim clerics and chant religious slogans. It is a worrying development in a country where women's rights have always been obtained in the teeth of opposition from the fundamentalists; they succeeded in driving Dr Aldulaimi into exile in Germany, where she still lives, after she proposed a law giving equal rights of inheritance to both sexes. Iraqi women did not get the vote - not that that meant much under Saddam's dictatorship - until 1980, by which time they made up 38.5 per cent of teachers, 31 per cent of the medical profession and 25 per cent of laboratory technicians.

Their situation became much worse as Saddam dragged his people into three disastrous conflicts, with the revival of polygamy to "protect" war widows and new regulations requiring women to be accompanied by a male relative when they travelled. Now the country's religious parties, aware that the US is desperate to get out, are pressing their advantage. In these fraught circumstances, the leaders of six secular parties - five of them represented on the Iraqi Governing Council - met on Thursday and agreed to unite in opposition to any form of theocratic government. They produced a draft constitution expressing "respect for the Islamic identity of Iraq without making Islam the only resource for the judiciary" - a tactful form of words designed to resist the imposition of sharia.

Much depends on the position taken by the Bush administration. It cannot help Astrik Ohanian, but it is reasonable to ask whether its commitment to democracy extends to ensuring that the hard-won rights of Iraqi women are protected. It would be a terrible irony if US soldiers died to free the Iraqi people from Saddam, only to return half the population to a form of subjection they began to throw off four decades ago.