BAGHDAD, Iraq—Women in Iraq's parliament say they were heartened by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's pledge in a speech before the U.S. Congress last week to improve women's rights.
But they warn that women's rights have declined as the country's security situation has worsened and the influence of fundamentalist Islamists increases.
"We will as women make him responsible for implementing what he has said," parliament member Maysoun al-Damalougi said of al-Maliki's speech.
In a once-secular state, many women now feel they must wear a veil to appease conservatives. Others say they fear offending Islamists' sensibilities by driving. Many say they are threatened regularly for how they dress.
Earlier this month in Amariyah, a western Baghdad neighborhood, residents found fliers warning women they would be killed if they drive. A woman's body, her veil still on her head, was found in the neighborhood a few days later. Residents believe she was killed for driving. In another area, Dora, women said they've heard threats that they shouldn't go to the market.
Thirty of the parliament's 275 members have signed a declaration calling for legislators to clarify the rights of women, saying female citizens are enduring "humiliating practices." The legislation was submitted in June, but has yet to be voted on.
The declaration calls for the Ministry of Justice to investigate complaints of inequality, for police officers to respect the rights of women spelled out in the constitution, and for schools to no longer force girls to wear veils.
"We are working so hard nowadays because we are in the process of establishing a state, and this state should be built on respecting each other's rights," said Shatha al-Abousi, a member of Iraq's parliament who signed the declaration.
The signers said this is not just about women's rights but about how much control religious leaders will have over their government. "These attempts to intimidate women are attempts to terrorize society," said Mithal Alusi, one of the 16 men who signed the declaration.
Rafal al-Khalidi, an engineer who works at an Iraqi ministry she did not want to identify because she feared retaliation, said she doesn't wear a veil and that she's often accosted by officials inside her ministry about her decision.
"I am not against women who wear head scarves but I am against those who want to deprive women of their right to choose," Rafal said.
She drives to work, a rarity these days, and often gets two dramatically different responses. Sometimes police officers chastise her; others quietly encourage her.
"A national guardsman once told me, `You are an example of courage,'" she said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.