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Many Iraqi women fear for their rights

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A small rally in downtown Baghdad marked the International Day of the Woman on Tuesday amid warnings that the rights of Iraqi women were in danger of being rolled back by religious extremists.

But it was hardly the only message of the day.

Nearby, some of Iraq's most prominent women, all Cabinet members, said they were confident that the rights Iraqi women had enjoyed since the 1950s would be protected. They said a balance of power in the new government would force religious conservatives who were elected to the National Assembly on Jan. 30 to compromise with more secular members.

As Iraq heads into its first experiment in democracy, the fate of women's rights is impossible to call.

The 275-member assembly is sure to be dominated by the United Iraqi Alliance, which won 140 seats and was blessed by a leading conservative Shiite Muslim cleric. The two strongest parties in the alliance were active in exile for years in Iran, where women have few rights. Some fear that the parties will try to write a constitution that follows a strict interpretation of Islamic law, and will force women to cover their heads and allow men to have four wives.

"We will have an Islamic republic like Iran," Yanar Muhammad, the head of the Woman's Freedom Organization in Iraq, warned the women gathered for the rally. "The woman won't be able to walk in the street comfortably. She won't be allowed to be educated or work. ... This anti-woman project cannot continue."

Nada al Bajati, the deputy of the organization, said some women were already seeing their rights being rolled back under the guise of Islamic fundamentalism.

"Women are facing many problems," she said. "They are sexually assaulted in their workplaces. In private factories, they are separating men from women, under the excuse of saving women from men, but actually, eventually, they will lower the women's pay."

The rally drew just a few dozen women, many of them veiled, some wearing the head-to-toe black abayas. It was impossible to know how many women didn't attend because of security concerns. Many here fear gathering in groups that might attract insurgent attacks. Distant explosions interrupted the speaker at one point.

One woman in an abaya, Hasna Ahmad Habib, 56, said security and the economy were her first priorities.

"I want to find a job for my sons because if they have jobs I don't have to work very hard," she said. "We want security. ... This is not democracy. This is chaos."

The National Assembly's first task will be to write a new constitution. The document must be approved by a two-thirds majority, which the United Iraqi Alliance doesn't have, and it can be vetoed by only three provinces.

That's why some women here say the new government will be unable to enact laws that restrict them the way women in Iran are restricted.

"I'm not worried," said Agriculture Minister Sawsan Ali al Sharifi, who won a seat in the assembly as a member of a secular slate. "The new government will be a combination of political powers." True, the United Iraqi Alliance won, she said, "but the other sectors will have their say."

Minister of Public Works Nasreen Mustafa Sadiq Barwari, an ethnic Kurd who also won a seat in the assembly, said she was confident that the more conservative elements of the United Iraqi Alliance were counterbalanced by other groups, such as the more secular Kurds, who won 26 seats.

"I have full trust in the Iraqi political process," she said. "Personally, I'm not very worried, but I also put the responsibility on the assembly and on the majority to include everyone in the constitution."


(Al Awsy is a special correspondent. Knight Ridder special correspondent Yasser Salihee and another special correspondent who can't be named for security reasons contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.