THREE dozen women in Western-style business suits crowded into the office of the man who would soon be Iraq’s prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Most were members of the newly elected National Assembly, and they had a list of demands.
They wanted women to run at least 10 of Iraq’s 30 or so government ministries. They wanted the number of places reserved for women on party slates raised to 40% in future elections. Most of all, they wanted a promise of respect for women’s rights.
Hours later, another group of women who are assembly members arrived in Jaafari’s office. They wore black abayas, the garments that cover a woman’s body from head to foot, and they had another agenda. They wanted to put aspects of Islamic law into Iraq’s legal code - including provisions that would allow men as many as four wives and reduce the amount of money allotted to women in inheritances.
As Iraq’s first elected parliament in decades prepares to begin its work, the women who make up nearly a third of its members agree on one thing: they want more power.
At the same time, the assembly’s women are deeply divided. On one side are those in the dominant Shi’ite alliance that was formed under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric. Many see their election as an opportunity to bring Iraq’s laws into harmony with Shariah, Islam’s version of divine law, drawn from the Koran and other religious sources.
This is no accident. The Shi’ite leadership, in fact, is shrewdly relying on these women to carry much of the fight in the new assembly over where Islam itself, not just its women, should fit in Iraqi society.
That prospect has galvanised many of the assembly’s more secular women, including those in the Kurdish alliance that agreed to broker a coalition government with the Shi’ites. They say Iraq’s current laws, which have historically been more liberal than many in the region, must be further liberalised to provide more rights for women, not fewer.
The two camps have been circling each other warily as the new government prepares to take power. The Shi’ite women "want to hinder woman, put shackles on her," said Songul Chapuk Omer, an ethnic Turkmen from Kirkuk. "They despise secular women. They consider that she has committed crimes."
One early battleground will be the new Iraqi constitution, which the assembly must draft by August. The question of Islam’s role in that document was one of the issues that held up the formation of a government for two months after the election.
The secularists have begun inviting Iraq’s hundreds of women’s groups to take part in drafting the document.
A similar grassroots campaign proved effective last year after religious Shi’ites on the Iraqi Governing Council proposed a law that would have extended the power of clerics over matters of family law. Women on the council banded together with secular men, and the proposed law was rejected.
Shatha al-Musawi is one of the Shi’ite alliance’s more visible members. A divorced mother of three, she worked for a decade selling clothes in a market while raising her children in Baghdad as a single mother and putting herself through college. "To tell you the truth, I am not a feminist," Musawi, dressed in a black abaya, said. "I don’t want to commit the same mistakes Western women have committed."
Musawi, 37, is not timid: during the first meeting of the National Assembly she delivered an angry speech demanding that the politicians who were holding up the new government be held to account. Asked about her belief that men should be allowed to have four wives, she shot back: "Have you heard of Nasreen Barwari?"
Barwari, the Harvard-educated minister of public works in Ayad Allawi’s interim government, led the delegation of secular women to Jaafari’s office last week. She is also the third wife of Ghazi al-Yawar, the assembly member and former interim president.
Musawi can defend her views about Shariah and men being allowed to have four wives in terms the secular can understand. She points out that after three recent wars, Iraq’s women account for more than 55% of the population by some estimates. In a culture where relationships outside wedlock are frowned upon, many women are living lives of lonely misery, she said.
In the same way, Musawi explains that Iraqi men - not women - are expected to help support their poorer relatives. So, she argues, it is fair to grant women a smaller share of inheritance by law.
Some women say blocking the traditionalists’ proposals is not enough. Iraq’s laws now provide cover for men who commit so-called honour killings - murdering wives or female relatives who are suspected of infidelity. One law specifically states that physical abuse is not grounds for divorce. Another makes it very difficult for a woman to keep her children if she remarries after a divorce.
"We should think about fixing these gaps, not going backwards," said Azhar Ramadan Rahim, a Kurdish assembly member from Baghdad. "I am a Muslim too, and Shi’ite, but rules written 1,400 years ago cannot be applied now."
One thing they all agree on is the need to maintain women’s voices in politics. The high number of women in the assembly - 87 of 275 seats - is, in effect, mandated: the independent commission that ran Iraq’s elections dictated that one out of every three candidates on every political coalition be a woman. It is unheard of in the Arab world for women to have such representation, and rare anywhere.
But the women say they want to find a way to maintain or strengthen this representation. They are rapidly gaining experience, and already, some say there is more uniting than dividing them.
"I am more afraid of the conservative powers than the Islamic powers," said Salam Smeasim, a secularist who is an economics adviser in the interim Women’s Affairs Ministry. "Even the Communist men here don’t want women to be active or to have powerful positions. I feel women here are very anxious to work in politics, even more than men. You can feel they are struggling for something."