BAGHDAD — Iraqi parliamentarian Jamila al-Obeidi called on March 12 for a bill that would offer financial support to men who take on more than one wife. She said the measure would be one way to tackle the social problems facing widows and divorced women in Iraq.
Obeidi stressed the seriousness of the bill, which will likely be sent to parliament for consideration in the coming months.
Yet Obeidi's proposal provoked much controversy in Iraq. Many have come out in support of it, like parliamentarian Motashar al-Samarrai, who told Iraqi media that the proposed bill was "in line with Islamic Sharia." He said that it is a woman's right “to have sexual relations but within the bounds of marriage.”
Other parliamentarians and activists had a different take on the issue. Iraqi activist and artist Najha Salih took to social media to speak out against the bill, which she deemed "reactionary" and a step backward.
Female parliamentarians Vian Dakhil and Maysoon al-Damluji also denounced the proposed bill. Parliamentarian Hanan al-Fitlawi said that the bill had prompted a dispute among female members of parliament, "as some parliamentarians support this polygamy bill, while others are strongly attacking it, considering it a way to objectify women.”
Even if the bill was passed, it would not be observed, wrote the editor-in-chief of Noor Economic Magazine, Raed al-Hashemi. “Most Iraqis can barely make ends meet for one family, let alone several ones. How is it reasonable to call for such legislation?” he wrote in an article published March 18.
“The law will exacerbate the economic and social problems of the family and will not solve any of the women’s social problems. On the contrary, it will increase them,” Intisar al-Jabouri, a member of the parliamentary Committee for Women, Family and Childhood, told Al-Monitor.
Obeidi told Al-Monitor during a telephone interview, “The legislation aims at protecting the widows and divorced women against exploitation by men, as women have increasingly been harassed, not to mention the spread of poverty and prostitution among this vulnerable group.”
She added, “The main objective of the bill is to break the social isolation of widows and divorced women by eliminating this look of inferiority of them and reintegrating them into the family."
Obeidi's proposed bill was not new in its discussion of polygamy, as the phenomenon is still practiced in Iraq. “Polygamy is accepted and is not seen as a taboo," said Raed Shaker al-Kalabi, a tribal sheikh in the south. "It is socially common in the city and the countryside.”
Kalabi, who is also a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “Polygamy is a response to the social problems … from the wars in Iraq, which leaves widows and orphans behind. In the countryside, men get married to several women to have more children, who will help with agricultural work.”
At the legal level, Iraq's Personal Status Law does not permit a second marriage unless three conditions are met: the first wife’s knowledge of the second marriage; plausible grounds for such a marriage, such as the first wife’s inability to have children; and financial capacity to support additional wives.
“The law derives its spirit from the fundamentals of Islam," said Abdul Hussein Ali, a cleric and an expert in Sharia. "[The law] is necessary so that the official courts can check if a man meets the three conditions before getting another wife.”
The Iraqi Constitution allows men to marry up to four women if they meet those three conditions, as stipulated by Iraq's Personal Status Law of 1959, which states, “Polygamy is not permissible if the men cannot be fair with his wives. The courts’ judges have the sole discretion to decide on this.” As a result, many prefer not to get married before a court.
Rizan al-Sheik Daleer, a member of the parliamentary Committee for Women, Family and Childhood, told Al-Monitor, “Polygamy is not the answer to the widows' and divorced women’s social problems. [The answer is in] empowering women, educating them and providing them with job opportunities in a society where men dominate all positions and jobs.”
She said, “We must work on preparing programs to train and empower women and to enhance their social and political role. The problems of women cannot only be solved through marriage. Polygamy could lead to further domestic violence in the absence of a law to protect women.”
Daleer suggested that widows and divorced women should be prioritized for government jobs so they can empower themselves economically and socially. These women could even be employed in rehabilitated factories or integrated into the army and police.
The key to solving the problems of widows and divorced women lies in spreading awareness among women. Through education and vocational training, women will be able to find jobs, achieve economic and social independence, and support themselves and their children. At that point, marriage will become the less needed and less appealing option.