By Michaela Colins
Remember the justification of the US-led invasion of Iraq (and earlier Afghanistan) as "liberation"? And the subtext, in the new American century, that the US, and its fawning supporters like Blair, would bring progress and enlightenment to the benighted Arab masses?
So what to make of this:
"This will send us home and shut the door, just like what happened to women in Afghanistan," said Amira Hassan Abdullah, a Kurdish lawyer.
"...the law of the tyrant Saddam was more modern than this new law."
On 13 January 2004 the Iraqi Governing Council passed law No 137, behind closed doors, removing the 1958 personal status code.
For the past four decades, Iraqi women have enjoyed some of the most modern legal protections in the Muslim world, under a civil code that prohibits marriage below the age of 18, arbitrary divorce, and male favouritism in child custody and property inheritance disputes. Under the Iraqi constitution, men and women are equal; women have unalterable divorce, marriage, inheritance, custody, and alimony rights. This personal status code was introduced in 1958. Saddam Hussein's dictatorship amended but did not do away with those rights. But the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council has voted to wipe them out, saying that family laws shall be "cancelled", and such issues placed under the jurisdiction of strict Islamic legal doctrine known as sharia.
Hundreds of women, led by Nisreen Birawi, the only woman minister on the Governing Council, protested in Baghdad against the new law.
This is how one Baghdad woman, a practising Muslim herself, describes her reaction:
"I usually ignore the emails I receive telling me to 'embrace' my new-found freedom and be happy that the circumstances of all Iraqi women are going to 'improve drastically' from what we had before. They quote Bush (which in itself speaks volumes) saying things about how repressed the Iraqi women were and how, now, they are going to be able to live free lives.
"The people who write those emails often lob Iraq together with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, and I shake my head at their ignorance but think to myself, 'Well, they really need to believe their country has the best of intentions, I won't burst their bubble.' But I'm telling everyone now - if I get any more emails about how free and liberated the Iraqi women are now thanks to America, they can expect a very nasty answer."
"My head has been spinning these last few days with decision No. 173 on changing family law to sharia. I've been darkly mulling over the endless possibilities. I'm not the only one - everyone I talk to is shaking their head in dismay. How is this happening? How are we caving in to fundamentalism?" (Baghdad Burning blog)
The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, set up in response to earlier moves towards Islamisation, and to campaign against rape, abduction and "honour killing" of women, sees this law as further evidence of the US occupation opening the door to the Islamists.
Nadia Mahmoud, representative of the OWFI abroad:
"After 9 April (Occupation) the IGC has worked hand-in-hand with the Islamist political groups to suppress women's rights. Women students at Basra University have been unable to attend unless they wear the veil, the same for hospital workers in Nasiriyah. They have attacked prostitutes and sex workers and driven them from the South to take refuge in Kurdistan. Rape is endemic. Women Ba'th party members are 'revenge raped'. Raped women are often killed by their relatives in so-called 'honour killings'. Women who co-operate with the occupying forces are deemed prostitutes or Ba'thists. Women can not go out on the streets, to school or work, unaccompanied."
But the new Order 137 has united wide sections of Iraqis in opposition: 80 human rights organisations supported the protest against this new law, and support has been pouring in from women's rights campaigners in other Muslim countries, who see Iraq as a beacon of secularism. "We don't want to get rid of Saddam in order to get another dictatorship - this time of political Islam."
The council's decisions must be approved by Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Iraq, and aides said unofficially that his signature was unlikely. Bremer did not respond to requests for comment. But what happens come June?
"The question is, even if the personal status laws aren't going to be subjected to change now - immediately - what about the future? What does that say about six months from now when Bremer's signature isn't necessary?" (Baghdad Burning blog)
There has been almost no media coverage of this law. It should be an opportunity for the anti-war movement to take up the arguments about the occupation as "liberation". Instead there has been a strange silence. At least some on the left see the issue as too threatening of their coalition-building with Islamists here. The labour movement must take up the issue of the defence of women's rights against the creeping Islamisation of Iraq, to which the occupying forces turn a blind eye.