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Human Rights Groups Fear Iraq Child Marriage Bill

After news broke of a child marriage bill in Iraq that would make it legal to marry girls as young as 9 years old as well as require women to be fully submissive to their husbands, human rights advocates were outraged.

The law is called the Jaafari Personal Status Law, based on ideas of a particular school of Shiite religious law. It was introduced last year, but was just approved by the current prime minister’s, Nouri al-Maliki, Council of Ministers. This action is a prerequisite for the law to be voted on in Iraq’s state assembly.

Many believe that this controversial law is an attempt by the government to create laws more representative of the Shiite majority of the population. The Shiite majority had been repressed prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that effectively removed Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. Since that invasion, many Shiite leaders both political and religious have made efforts to demonstrate the strength of their new regime.

The draft law does not actually state a minimum age for marriage, but instead includes a section on divorce with rules for girls who have reached the age of 9 according to the lunar Islamic calendar. The law would also give a girl’s father the sole ability to accept or refuse a marriage proposal, effectively taking any influence away from a girl’s mother.

It is important to notice that the Islamic lunar calendar is about 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. Therefore the age of 9 by the Islamic lunar calendar is the same as 8 years and 8 months old by the Gregorian calendar. Including these divorce rules implies that it would be allowed for girls as young as 9 to have first been married.

The legal age of marriage in Iraq is 18 years old without parental approval, but younger girls can be married with parental consent or consent of a guardian. Reports show that underage marriage is on the rise, with statistics from 2011 showing that 25% of marriages in Iraq included at least one person under the age of 18.

The draft law would also legalize a husband to have sex with his wife regardless of her consent and would require women to get the permission of their husband before leaving the house. Furthermore, the law would make it more difficult for women to obtain custody of children after divorce and would make it easier for men to have more than one wife.

Rights advocates and many Iraqi citizens alike see the law as a major regression of women’s rights. Many also believe that the law would further aggravate tensions between Shiites and Sunnis in the country.

Joe Storl, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, has said, “Passage of the Jaafari law would be a disastrous and discriminatory step backward for Iraq’s women and girls. This personal status law would only entrench Iraq’s divisions while the government claims to support equal rights for all.” There have also been outcries that the law legalizes the rape of women.

While the reactions to this law demonstrate a fear that Iraq is moving backwards, it appears that the Shiite government is not concerned. Prime Minister al-Maliki’s spokesman Ali al-Moussawi said, “Some media outlets show Iraq as it has gone backwards but this isn’t true. In the west, people are talking about gay marriage. This is something we would never discuss and it is against our religion, our nature, yet we don’t say that they are backwards.”

While protests continue, we can only wait to see what will happen and if this controversial law will actually be passed.

– Julie Guacci

Sources: TIME, The Huffington Post, The Guardian
Photo: Rasoul Ali