New legislation in the Iraqi parliament that would allow girls as young as 9 to marry is drawing stiff opposition from a nationwide coalition of civil society groups.

A woman works in a shop that rents wedding dresses in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.
A woman working in a wedding dress rental shop in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad in 2010. Photo courtesy of the New York Times/Ayman Oghanna

Although the measure is unlikely to pass--a similar proposal was introduced and rejected in 2014--there is concern that it underscores the rising tide of extremist sentiment in Iraq and threatens the constitutional guarantees for gender equality and other freedoms.

“Such continuous attempts by conservative blocs to install strict legislation may exacerbate community divisions along ethnic, sectarian and political lines,” said Maysoon Al-Damluji, a member of the Iraqi parliament who opposes the legislation. The legislation is backed by Shia blocs in parliament and isn’t linked to support for other kinds of radical interpretations of Islam by the ISIS extremist group.

The United Nations and international human rights groups have documented the practice of child marriage in Iraq. A family might marry off a girl thinking it is legitimate religious practice and in her interest because, for example, they can’t afford to care for all their children. The unofficial, religious ceremonies aren’t documented by normal court registration procedures because the practice is illegal. So not only are the girls extremely young, but they are denied any legal rights because of the absence of records. According to a 2011 UNICEF study, approximately 1 in 4 Iraqi girls are married before the legal age of 18, often driven by poverty and long-standing social traditions.

Rezan Sheikh Dler, a member of the Women and Children Committee at the Iraqi National Council of Representatives, blasted the child marriage legislation in the Iraqi media, calling it “sectarian” and “unconstitutional.” She said the new legislation is the same as the old measure that failed and expects it to meet a similar fate.

The attempt to legalize child marriage comes less than a month after conservative lawmakers introduced a proposal regulating the press, the right to free assembly, and the right to hold public demonstrations. Those freedoms are guaranteed under Article 38 of the Iraqi constitution, and a coalition of Iraqi civil rights activists and NGOs calling themselves “Alliance 38” took to the streets to demonstrate against the attempt to curtail civil liberties.

The activists believe this type of legislation not only violates Iraqis’  basic human rights but will deepen community frustrations with the government, possibly leading to unrest that could be exploited by extremist groups such as ISIS.

Hanaa Edwar, who heads an Iraqi organization that trains women and youth on peacebuilding and conflict resolution skills, described the practice of allowing underage girls to marry as a crime against humanity because of the severe physical and psychological suffering it often entails. Her group, the Al-Amal Association, is among USIP grantees promoting the equal participation of women in Iraq’s political and social spheres and is a member of Alliance 38. A 2015 grant to the Women Empowerment Organization paved the way for the government’s adoption of the U.N. Security Council’s landmark Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which calls for the protection of women and girls in conflict zones and for women to be involved in decision making on security issues.

In a statement, Alliance 38 criticized Shia political parties for trying to undo a law that has been in effect since 1959 granting women equal rights with men. They said the proposal to allow the marriage of minors as young as age 9 “classifies Iraqis on a confessional and ethnic basis with no regard to the concepts and principles of citizenship on which the Iraqi modern state was founded nearly 90 years ago.”

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