U.S. must help protect rights of Iraqi women

Two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the seeds of democracy are sprouting. Like any potential democracy, including ours more than two centuries ago, this one is off to a rocky start. January’s election left no faction with a clear majority in the general assembly, leaving disparate blocs to jockey for power.

In all of this, Western observers and many inside Iraq fear that if Islamic fundamentalists win prime positions in the new government, women will lose. Women are second-class citizens in many largely Islamic nations, a fate we must hope does not await the women of this fledgling democracy.

Iraq’s first constitution, adopted in 1959, was remarkably liberal regarding women’s rights – by Middle Eastern standards. It gave women the right to vote, prevented multiple marriages and arbitrary divorce. Under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, however, there were wide reports of systematic rapes and forced prostitution to punish family members.

The recent election, the first step toward a new constitution, offers new hope to the women of Iraq. Clearly, they must be ready to fight the political battles necessary to protect their rights. In doing so, they should be able to expect the support of the United States and other Western nations that value the rights of all people.

Some might argue that by opening the door to democracy in Iraq, the United States and its allies must accept any democratic outcome. But if the rights of women and minorities aren’t protected, you don’t have freedom. Without freedom, you can’t have true democracy. As a new constitution takes shape, the United States has an important and appropriate diplomatic role to play in pressing for the equal protection of all Iraqis’ rights.

There is reason for optimism. The Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, the election’s leading vote-getter, favors a candidate for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who insists women needn’t worry. Still, clerics have much influence within the party, and some fear they will work to erode women’s rights over time.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who just returned from a European and Middle Eastern tour that included a visit to Baghdad, believes that fear is well-founded. She pointed to an article in the Kuwait Times that reported the recent killings of several Iraqi women who either spoke out in favor of women’s rights or dared to wear Western clothing in public. Murray argues that the United States, having opened the door to democracy in Iraq, must not abandon that nation’s women if their rights are threatened.

She’s right. It’s one of the many long-term responsibilities we have taken on there.

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