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A woman's place

IN IRAQ, women account for nearly 50 percent of the country's 24 million people. Among Iraqis ages 15-64, they number about the same, or 6.5 million. So it stands to reason that the United States would want women involved in the reconstruction of postwar Iraq and named to positions of authority.

Three women have been named to the interim Governing Council established by the U.S. authority and others sit on local city councils. But for coalition forces, elevating the status of women in this male-dominated, Muslim society is a goal as problematic as it is admirable.

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Consider the outcome of attempts to name the first female judge in the religious city of Najaf, the center of Islamic Shiism in Iraq: Several dozen men, many of them lawyers, protested the appointment of Nadal Nasser Hussein with three English words, "No woman judge." The outcry, as reported by The New York Times and United Press International, arose after two Muslim clerics issued decrees opposing women judges on religious grounds. A few women also raised their voices in protest. It didn't matter that the chief judge and a dozen colleagues supported Ms. Hussein's candidacy or that women, including a prominent Shiite, held posts in the city.

The controversy over Ms. Hussein's judgeship (her appointment was delayed) illustrates the social hurdles facing the coalition authority as it tries to remake Iraq and foster democratic and civil institutions there. Religious, tribal and social priorities differ from region to region; what is acceptable in Baghdad (there are five women judges there) may be unacceptable in Basra.

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That means coalition forces will have to tailor reforms accordingly, a tricky proposition that may involve adapting Western rights and liberties to Middle East sensibilities and traditions. L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. envoy overseeing the civil authority in Iraq, met with about 40 Iraqi women early last month to discuss their needs.

A subsequent conference on women's roles in a new Iraq attracted about 100 professionals and activists from throughout the country. Access to education, legal reforms and safety issues topped their concerns. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky and her staff identified Iraqi women who can take a leadership role in the process.

The sensitivities surrounding women's issues -- and there are many -- shouldn't deter the new civil administration and interim Iraqi Governing Council from securing and protecting women's rights. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, women's rights and standing in the community continually eroded. Under Iraqi law, men had the right to beat their wives, and were spared criminal prosecution if they killed a female relative in defense of family honor. Mr. Hussein increased to four the number of wives men could marry, and women became targets of intimidation and retribution by security forces.

The government sponsored beheadings of accused prostitutes and used rape and torture of women to punish political prisoners and dissidents.

Iraqi women have earned the right to determine their futures. They deserve that chance, whether they wear a business suit, a doctor's lab coat or the flowing black robes of a religious Muslim.


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