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Overlapping Laws Trap Iraqi Women Seeking Divorce


And now to Iraq, where there was also an upsurge in bloodshed today. Bombs killed more than 60 people in Baghdad, in the northern city of Kirkuk. Reporters describe gruesome scenes at local hospitals as hundreds of wounded were brought in.

Before the blast in Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched an operation against suspected Shiite death squads. The growing sectarian violence is prompting the U.S. military to consider deploying more troops to Baghdad.

The bloodshed has grown only worse since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formed a new government two months ago. Maliki comes to Washington tomorrow to discuss the crisis with President Bush.

The seemingly unending killing is one aspect of the new Iraq. Another is a new parliament drafting new laws and eventually revising the constitution. This is the subject of a report now from NPR's Jamie Tarabay. She says the Iraqi constitution will go only so far. It will allow Iraqis to apply their own traditional or tribal law in many instances. That could be bad news for Iraqi women, especially those seeking a divorce.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Nadia al-Abdullah(ph) is a plump 30-year-old woman with straight black hair and enormous black eyes. She's got the flu and sniffles as she speaks.

Ms. NADIA al-ABDULLAH (Divorced): (Through Translator) I was married for eight years. I got divorced after the regime fell in October, 2003.

TARABAY: Nadia was her husband's second wife, a wife her husband kept secret from his first wife for seven years. The first wife comes from a big family. Nadia does not.

Ms. ABDULLAH: His parents forced him to leave me. They threatened him. His sister is married to one of their other sons, and they said that if he didn't leave me, they would kick his sister out of the house.

TARABAY: In a tribal society such as the one Nadia lives in, the family has greater sway than the law, so her husband yielded, but didn't want to be the one to apply for the divorce so he wouldn't have to pay Nadia any maintenance.

He told her to tell the court judge the divorce was her idea.

Ms. ABDULLAH: (Through Translator) If I asked for the divorce, then I would lose all my rights, my house and my belongings.

TARABAY: They have an 8-year-old daughter together and she too could go to the husband's family.

Ms. ABDULLAH: I had no money at that time so I sold my refrigerator and hired a lawyer.

TARABAY: Even the court order allowing her to remain in her own house for three more years held no sway with her husband's in-laws. Nadia says her husband's eight brothers-in-law came and forced her out by abducting her daughter, and moved her into a two-room shack in the back of the garden of the main house. She gave in to get her daughter back.

Still she endures harassment.

Ms. ABDULLAH: (Through Translator) He fights with me everyday, trying to make me leave. He's cut the power off, the water, threw bricks from his house onto my roof just to scare me. I can't go to my parents because they don't want my daughter. They say to give her to her father, but I won't. She'll turn into a maid for his first wife.

TARABAY: She's come to a women's center in Baghdad to get some more advice and support. As she speaks, eight-year-old Nora(ph) runs around the room, drinking from a small carton of orange juice.

Not all women know to get help. Many feel trapped within the confines of their culture and tradition that allows things like domestic violence to occur. Surrounded by files in her white-walled office is lawyer Ashar Oshabah(ph). She heads a legal clinic for women seeking help. One of the biggest questions they have is about child custody.

Ms. ASHAR OSHABAH (Attorney): (Through Translator) A woman wanting to get divorced is often afraid to ask for one because she's scared she'll lose her children. She won't believe that according to the law, she's allowed to keep them. She doesn't know her rights.

TARABAY: Oshabah is a boisterous, imposing woman in a brown pantsuit. Her headscarf does a poor of covering her chic blonde bob. She knows that some Iraqi women, like a lot of Western women, are willing to put up with a bad marriage if the side benefits, a comfortable lifestyle, for example, balance out the bad stuff.

Ms. OSHABAH: (Through Translator) There's a saying that goes, the cat doesn't leave the kitchen. If a woman can't preserve her dignity, why ask for a divorce? There must be a seriously grievous reason that forces a woman to abdicate all her rights to get rid of her husband, like if he beats her or humiliates her.

TARABAY: Sitting in the lobby of the Rashid Hotel, Human Rights Minister Wijdan Michel says the new constitution drafted and passed by the interim Iraqi government has only made things worst. She leans across the coffee table and pulls out a small booklet she carries everywhere, the Iraqi constitution.

According to the booklet, Iraqis can decide whether to follow civil law or their own tribal traditions, which could include multiple wives, domestic violence, and forcing women to cover their hair.

And there are no plans to discuss the constitution yet.

Ms. WIJDAN MICHEL (Human Rights Minister, Iraq): This item, no plan discuss it.

TARABAY: Michel says the main Shiite alliance run by religious hardliners dominated the constitution's drafting last year and pushed for this change over the objections of secular committee members. And now politicians like Michel need to find wiggle room to apply the civil law and override religious law.

Back at the women's center, Nadia Abdalah urges her daughter to drink more juice in the stifling heat. For her, any kind of reparation is already too late. She's reduced to selling Pepsi cans on the sidewalk to make enough to get by. But at the same time, Nadia says she feels stronger for having stood up to her husband and his family.

Ms. ABDALAH: (Through Translator) Before, he would only let me see my parents every three months, and only if my mother was sick or if something had happened. Now I go whenever I want. I lock my door and go to see them. I feel free.

TARABAY: She says she finally feels like she has her own personality. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.