Islamist parties challenge Iraqi domestic violence draft law

The potential enactment of a domestic violence bill into law has engendered a major struggle between civil society activists and Shiite Islamist parties that believe the law will split families.

al-monitor Iraqi Kurds with their mouths taped shut take part in a protest to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah on Nov. 25, 2008. Photo by Photo by SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP via Getty Images.

أغس 18, 2020

Iraq’s Ministry of Interior said Aug. 4 that the father of a 9-year-old girl in Basra province was arrested for committing violence against her and severely injuring her.

In the absence of any law assisting domestic violence victims and punishing perpetrators, cases of domestic violence have surged in Iraq since the coronavirus began and with the subsequent curfew. Meanwhile, no progress has been made regarding the domestic violence bill amid disagreements over its provisions in parliament.

Progress would require the enactment of the bill; some Islamist parties and clerics reject or oppose some of its provisions under the pretext that it would split Iraqi families.

In a strange demonstration, dozens of women went out on Aug.17, in the capital, Baghdad, denouncing the "anti-domestic violence" bill that other women are seeking to pass. This demonstration was affiliated with the Islamic Virtue Party, which is considered one of the most prominent opponents of the legislation.

In an attempt to meet activists’ demands that parliament make the bill a law, the government said Aug. 4 that the council of ministers voted on it and referred it to parliament for a vote.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, the head of Iraq’s Al-Amal Association and advocate for the law Hanaa Edwar said, “The Islamic Virtue Party is still [leading] the campaign against the bill, although it does not have more than six or seven seats in parliament. They are using their loud voice against the law as electoral propaganda to win the common people’s votes, as they did in the past elections.”

“We have been in constant contact with the speakership of the house that is in favor of passing the law, as well as with the parliamentary women's affairs committee and other relevant committees,” she added. “We will carry on the advocacy campaign with parliamentarians for the various political forces to schedule the bill for a reading as soon as possible. This is added to the various activities designed to raise awareness and educate the community on the need and importance of the law in order to protect victims of domestic violence and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes and bring about social and family stability.”

Iraq’s civil society activists seek to add amendments criminalizing domestic violence by defining the different forms of domestic violence, including physical, moral, sexual and economic violence, and binding the government to open domestic violence shelters and set up a family court.

Activists are pressuring the government through the social media sphere, campaigning for the law and using the hashtag #Domestic_Violence_Law. In contrast, accounts said to be affiliated with extremist Shiite Islamist parties used the hashtag #Domestic_Violence_Law_is_rejected.

Those opposing the draft law sought to correlate it with prostitution, family disintegration and declining Iraqi values. Yet there is nothing in the bill that contradicts Sharia. 

Hussein al-Oqabi, a parliament member with Al-Nahj bloc, which is affiliated with the Islamic Virtue Party, indicated that the domestic violence bill in general gives the government extensive authority to meddle in the family’s private affairs, referring to the shelters.

Speaking to the press, he noted that “most of the things put forward in the domestic violence bill are criminal offenses already criminalized in the Penal Code No. 111 of 1969 in force.” He suggested resolving "family problems according to Iraqi customs and traditions because reporting violence will lead to societal discord.”

The mechanism for the post-violence stage is one of the disputed provisions between civil society activists and Islamic parties. While the parties want things to be resolved through family reconciliation, civil society wants the abusing party to be held accountable and the abused to be protected.  

There are very few domestic violence shelters in Iraq. According to Human Rights Watch, [victims of violence] are often sheltered in women's prisons, which is behind including a provision on setting up new shelters in the draft law.

Al-Monitor learned of a woman who fled from her family to Istanbul a few days ago after her family and the judiciary failed to help her find justice, as she was a victim of her husband’s abuse for six years. This being said, the absence of a domestic violence law is what will break up families, not the opposite.

The Kurdistan Regional Government's parliament ratified a domestic violence law in 2011 and established battered women’s shelters. Yet 15 Iraqi provinces have remained without a law in this regard while perpetrators of violence against women are punished under the Penal Code of 1969.

Nevertheless, Article 14 of the Penal Code, which Islamic parties cling to, entitles the husband to beat his wife, the father to beat his children and teachers to beat their students “to discipline” them. So far, one can say that violence in Iraq is codified and protected by the law.

Parliament member Rizan Al-Sheikh, an advocate for the law, told Al-Monitor that “the efforts designed to prevent the enactment of the domestic violence law or the addition of articles that would be helpful for the victims are void of any motive to protect women and are designed to keep the victims subject to violence.”

She added, “Some are scared, worried and give a bad image about everything related to women's protection. This law protects the victims and does not call for family disintegration or for deviating from Iraqi traditions and customs. It is nothing more than a protective law.”

The enactment of the law that stipulates setting up shelters, family courts and family welfare does not seem easily achievable. The struggle to legislate this law has been going on for nearly a decade, and it is obvious that the Shiite Islamic parties that reject some of its provisions are powerful.

The enactment of this law does not seem possible during the current parliamentary cycle or even the next one in the event that the parties opposing it continue to have the majority of votes. Their voice will continue to resonate as long as the organizations seeking its ratification are not represented in parliament.

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