The Washington Post Column

Democracy Under The Veil

She looked nice, Laura Bush, in her black veil and modest dress, touring the Dome of the Rock, smiling sweetly at the protesters outside. She sounded nice, too, in her keynote speech at the Dead Sea in Jordan. She talked about education, called this a “springtime of hope,” spoke of translating books for the children of Lebanon and Bahrain. Here and there she also mentioned women, as in “Americans are inspired by the courage and the determination of women throughout the Middle East,” or “our challenge is to help more women gain the confidence and the credit to start their own business.”

As I say, it was a nice speech, and by all accounts it received polite applause. What it failed to do, however, was to place the extraordinarily touchy — and not very nice — issue of Islamic women’s rights where it belongs: smack in the middle of the democracy debate going on in the Muslim world, and most of all in Iraq.

Appearances to the contrary, legal equality for women in the Islamic world is not a peripheral cause, something it would be nice to have, like more Arabic translations of children’s books. Nor should it be left for the first ladies to discuss while the diplomats and soldiers decide the important stuff. On the contrary, the decisions made about women’s status may well determine whether democracy and the rule of law can be made to stick in that part of the world at all.

To see what I mean, look at the Iraqi constitutional debate, now informally underway. Some of the politicians involved have in the past said they would like Iraq’s laws governing divorce, marriage and women’s property ownership to be written in strict conformance with sharia religious law. There are others who want the constitution itself to declare sharia “the source” rather than “a source” of Iraqi law, or to proclaim that “no law can contradict Islam.” In practice, any of these formulations could eventually give unelected clerics the ability to override the law, since no secular parliament can define sharia. And once religious courts take precedence over elected officials, women will not be the only victims. In Iran, for example, the constitution does guarantee “the rights of women.” But neither women’s rights nor anyone else’s rights can be enforced in Iran because clerics, not legislators, define “rights” for all Iranians.

The role of women is also tangled up in still more basic issues: How much control should the state have over the behavior of an individual? How much religious freedom should Iraqis or other Muslims have, particularly given that there is more than one way to interpret the Koran? In a recent speech, Iranian writer Azar Nafisi compared her grandmother, who wore a veil all her life, with her mother, who considered herself a Muslim and went on pilgrimages to Mecca, yet never wore a veil. Who, she asked, is in a position to say which woman was the “good” Muslim? “No government, no state has the right to interfere with the way an individual woman or man worships or does not worship his or her God.” And any political system that does not limit the state’s ability to dictate the behavior and beliefs of its citizens, male or female, is at risk of backsliding into totalitarianism, no matter how often its citizens go to the voting booths.

None of which is to say that Iraq, Iran or any other Muslim country should look like the United States, or that Muslim women should look like Western women, or that any Muslim country needs to implement an American-style separation of church and state. But Islamic constitutions vary, from the Turkish to the Moroccan to the Egyptian, and many do give women basic rights. At the very least, religious and political freedom must be guaranteed for women if Iraq is to remain a democracy, or even an open society, over time. We should use whatever limited influence we have to convince the Iraqis of this case. It was nice that the first lady chose to devote a major chunk of a major speech to the women of Islam. But it would make a bigger difference if her husband chose to do the same.