Published January 13, 2015
Mariam al-Rayes still remembers the words of a skeptical colleague at law school. "You cannot work as a lawyer because people do not trust women lawyers," he told her many years ago.
Since then, al-Rayes has successfully practiced law and gone on to become one of nearly 90 women in Iraq's current 275-member parliament, dominated by a coalition of Shiite religious parties to which she belongs.
And she was hoping to keep her spot in the legislature, campaigning in Thursday's elections, but this time on a different ticket.
Some women's rights activists argue that female legislators have little to show for their time in parliament. Harsher critics even accuse them of helping pass a constitution that the critics say undermines women's rights.
The debate underscores the deep differences that still exist within Iraqi society over the role of women and of Islam, and whether practices like polygamy should be allowed. Some women themselves do not accept the notion of equality between men and women.
Iraq's new constitution provides that men and women have basic legal rights such as voting and being able to own property or sue in court. But it also declares that Islam is a foundation — though not the only one — for Iraqi law.
Under the constitution, questions of divorce, marriage and inheritance are governed by the religion of those involved. That would allow Muslim men to continue taking up to four wives — a practice that is not followed as widely in Iraq as in some other Muslim countries.
For al-Rayes, the sheer presence of women legislators was a feat after many opposed efforts to do away with, or make temporary, the current quota system that ensures women get no less than 25 percent of parliamentary seats.
"Some still believe that women have unrightfully taken seats that should have gone to men," she said. "These women (legislators) will learn a lot just by being there. Men were not born experts on politics."
She said female parliamentarians had other triumphs such as overcoming objections and including in the constitution a sentence that lets Iraqi mothers pass on their nationalities to their children, even if they are married to foreigners.
Women also participated in most parliamentary committees, said al-Rayes, who was a member of the key constitution drafting committee.
But Yanar Mohammed, a women's rights activist who is not in parliament, argued that to meet the quota, some political parties stacked their lists with women who had no interest in women's causes but were put there simply to rubber-stamp party decisions.
Mohammed, who has received death threats from militant groups because of her calls for secular laws, accused female legislators of passing a constitution that undermines women's rights.
"A constitution that is based on a religious law that gives men the right to marry four wives is one that is against women," she said. "All the gains that Iraqi women have made since the 50's have been taken away."
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, many Iraqi women prided themselves on enjoying more rights than many other women in the conservative Middle East.
Not true, said Jenan al-Ubeidi, a member of the Shiite alliance who wears one of the more conservative forms of Islamic veil. She argues that Iraqi women were as oppressed as all Iraqis under Saddam and that the constitution does not undermine the position of women.
"True, the constitution says that no law that runs contrary to the teachings of Islam may pass, but it also says that no law can be adopted if it contradicts the principles of democracy," she said. "Any law that can hurt women will not be adopted."
Al-Ubeidi believes nothing guarantees women's rights more than Islam.
She said the constitution defended women when it prohibited "all forms of violence and abuse in the family, school and society," as well as "tribal traditions that are in contradiction with human rights."
But al-Ubeidi, a pious Muslim, said she will "will abide by the teachings of Islam" even on matters like polygamy.
Al-Ubeidi said she would try to block any attempts to ban polygamy since Islam allows men to wed up to four wives in certain circumstances. But she would support calls to put in place the conditions required before a man could marry more than one wife. Islam says husbands must provide equally for each wife and treat them in an absolute even manner.
Al-Ubeidi said she supports a woman becoming head of state, but believes that Iraqi women need some time to get there.
Safia al-Suhail, a candidate running on the ticket of secular former premier Ayad Allawi, said she would see to it that this happens.
"The woman should be at the top of the political food chain. She should be a decision maker," said al-Suhail who pledged to nominate herself to be the president of Iraq one day.
"This is an opportunity to serve the people," she said. "Why should men monopolize this honor?"