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Women of Islam

Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A18

THEY MET THE new secretary of state, spoke to women's organizations and conferred with the U.S. Agency for International Development. But the delegations of Afghan and Iraqi women -- led by Massouda Jalal, Afghanistan's minister of women's affairs, and Narmin Othman, her counterpart in Iraq -- were not in Washington last week merely to make courtesy calls. They were here to stress that women's issues, in the new democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan, are not peripheral. How these two countries resolve them may determine whether they remain democratic societies, or even open societies.

In Iraq, this question will surface soon, during debate over the new Iraqi constitution. The issue is central to all Iraqis: What Westerners think of as fundamental rights for women -- to own money and property and to work outside the house -- can be established only if the constitution guarantees all Iraqis the right to religious freedom. But if the constitution establishes an extreme form of sharia law, either directly or by implication, then clerics will be able to set the rules not only for women but eventually for everyone, men and women, in Iraq's Christian, Kurdish and secular communities. Any clause or formula that enables unelected clerics to veto laws passed by the elected legislature will, over time, erode whatever fragile democracy is in place at the time the constitution takes effect.

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This is not to say that either Iraq or Afghanistan should look like the West or that they should accept an American notion of separation of church and state. But outsiders should pay attention to at least two fundamental issues. One is a guarantee for women to have a role in the political process: the rights to vote and stand for office. The second is that elected politicians, not clerics, should have ultimate jurisdiction over the legal system.

If those two elements are in place, then Iraqi society will be able to evolve, as have other Islamic societies such as Morocco. That will not only protect the rights of women who do not want to live according to the most fundamentalist interpretations of Islam but also ensure that Iraq does not become a static theocracy.

The United States cannot dictate outcomes, but the view that American politicians, legal advisers, aid workers and others take of these issues can continue to influence the debate in Iraq, as in Afghanistan. It is in U.S. interests, as well as Iraq's interests, for Americans at the highest levels to continue to push hard on those issues and not assume that they can be dealt with later.

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