|BAGHDAD (AFP) — Small groups of women took to the streets around Iraq on Wednesday to demand at least a 40 per cent share of the country's new political power as females make up more than half of the population.
They also opposed an attempt by Iraq's Governing Council to turn the clock back on women's existing rights by repealing long-standing secular family laws.
A provisional administration is due to take power from the interim council by June 30 and Iraqi women, who comprise at least 52 per cent of the country's 25-million-strong population, want a piece of the action.
"We think this is very, very important," said Hanaa Edwar, secretary general of the Iraqi El Amal Association, the network group that coordinated the simultaneous rallies in separate provinces nationwide.
"It is a decisive time for Iraqi women to be represented in the democratisation of our country," she told AFP at a peaceful protest of about 30 or 40 women in Baghdad.
On a large traffic island in the centre of Baghdad, old and young women, some dressed in conservative shawls and robes, others in western clothes, brandished banners and gave speeches to draw attention to their cause.
"We want to get women's rights because we are the majority and such rights did not exist until now," said Suha Yakub, a 22-year-old student, dressed in a denim skirt and shirt.
The women's case even spurred one man to stand up and declare his support.
"We have got to give fair rights to women and men," said Nuri Sittr, an adviser to Iraq's reconstruction and development council.
Edwar said she was unsure how many other demonstrations were taking place but was confident they had occurred in at least 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
The women want to ensure that equal rights with men are enshrined in a temporary constitution or fundamental law being drawn up to provide the legal framework for Iraq's new administration.
"We have to have a guarantee in this law that the representation of women will not be less than 40 per cent in all political decision making," said Edwar.
They also reject a proposal by lawmakers to scrap Iraq's 1959 family affairs code — considered among the most progressive in the Middle East — and place it under Muslim religious jurisdiction. The Governing Council has already been blocked once by the US occupation after it tried to repeal the code in December.
"This is a very important issue," said Edwar, whose organisation is an umbrella for some 80 women's groups with thousands of members.
The fundamental law is due to be finalised by Feb. 28 and remain in force until a permanent constitution has been drafted by an elected convention and ratified by a referendum next year.
US civil administrator Paul Bremer has threatened to veto an Islamic constitution if it does not conform with American concepts of democracy and civil liberties.
Despite the protests, women said they were freer to do and say what they want now than during Saddam's decades-long dictatorship.
There are just three female members of Iraq's 25-strong Governing Council and one government minister. In contrast, Saddam had no female ministers in his last government, although his Baath Party initially championed the rights of women.