Dozens of women gathered in Baghdad, Iraq, on Saturday to protest a proposed law that would allow girls in the country to be married off at just nine years old. The law would also grant full custody of children to fathers, robbing mothers of the ability to make decisions regarding their children.
“On this day of women, women of Iraq are in mourning,” human rights activist Hanaa Eduar said during the protest. “We believe that this is a crime against humanity. It would deprive a girl of her right to live a normal childhood.”
The proposed bill was put forward by Justice Minister Hasaan al-Shimari, a member of the country’s Shi’ite Islamist Fadila party. Shi’ite parties in Iraq first tried to pass a similar law in 2003 after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Shi’ite leaders who defend the law say it is in line with the freedom granted in the country’s constitution to enforce religious morality through legislation.
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“This is the core of the freedom,” Shi’ite lawmaker Hussein al-Mura’abi argued. “Based on the Iraqi constitution, each component of the Iraqi people has the right to regulate its personal status in line with the instructions of its religion and doctrine.”
Iraq’s current laws grant women extensive rights regarding marriage, inheritance, and child custody. Together, the current statutes have been hailed as some of the most progressive in the Middle East.
The proposed law would change all of this. Among other things, the bill claims girls reach puberty at age nine and can be married off accordingly. It grants fathers complete custody of children at age two, and legally allows men to demand sex from their wives at any time.
Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations representative to Iraq, says the bill “risks constitutionally protected rights for women and international commitment.”
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It is not clear if the bill will pass in Iraq’s parliament amongst strong opposition from secular representatives.