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Women's Rights (Basra)

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2008

6. What assessment he has made of the safety of women in Basra province who do not adhere to Islamic dress and behaviour codes. (175896)

The Government condemn all violence against women and are committed to supporting women’s rights in Iraq. We have heard accounts of extremist militias murdering women who allegedly have not conformed to the dress codes that their killers consider appropriate for females. We are supporting groups and individuals working to improve the situation of women in Basra. These include many committed and courageous female professionals and politicians. We support the Basra chief of police’s personal pledge to improve security for women in the city.

I thank the Minister for that thoughtful response. Can he assure us that the Government in Basra province are as committed as the House believes they should be to equal rights for all citizens and to protecting some of the most vulnerable from action by militias or by the police or state authorities? Does he share my concern that we may have left in Iraq a situation where dressing un-Islamically, or comitting apostasy or blasphemy, are punishable physically, and that in that respect the situation is worse than when we went to war there?

I raised the matter this morning with General Mohan, who is the head of the operations centre in Basra. He reminded me that Basra had once been the most cosmopolitan of cities in the Gulf, and he was confident that it could be returned to that position. He made it clear to me that he was worried about some of the activities of what he called Iranian agents in stirring up feeling there in favour of a much more rigorous application of the more austere aspects of some Islamist sects. The hon. Gentleman is right. We must keep a close eye on the situation and keep reminding the Government in Baghdad that they must do everything possible to protect women in that city and in every other city in Iraq.

Will my hon. Friend comment on the historic background to the sort of treatment that we are hearing about in Basra province? Does it go back to the period of Saddam Hussein or beyond that? Does he agree that the Koranic advice on Islamic dress is simply that men and women should dress modestly—that is, they should be careful and not expose too much of their body? However, it says nothing about the burqa or the niqab.

It is important that we remember that in the last years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, he had six women murdered in Basra. Their bodies lay in the main street for six days and no one was allowed to touch them because he wanted to teach Basrawis a lesson about the way that they behaved in public. It was a brutal regime and it has been a brutal history. My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about the subject, is right about dress codes. One has only to visit the middle east to witness how differently dress codes are interpreted across the region. It is a mystery to those of us who go there and ask, “If the dress code is interpreted in that way in one country, why should it be so strictly interpreted in another?” I hope that our dialogue with countries in the middle east will help them understand the concern that we feel at the fact that human beings are treated in that way as a consequence of their mode of dress.

The Minister will have seen today’s comments by Sir Hilary Synnott, the former head of the British administration in southern Iraq. Sir Hilary said that the problems there are due, at least in large part, to the fact that the efforts of our troops were let down by a failure to co-ordinate and deliver effective civilian work on reconstruction. Can the Minister assure us now that the Government have learned and are acting on that lesson from Basra, before we repeat the experience that has occurred in Afghanistan?

I was surprised to read Sir Hilary’s statement, because in fact there have been some very substantial achievements in and around Basra; one has only to think, for example, of some of the projects run by the Army down there. There are huge new date plantations, employing 4,000 people. When our rebuilding of parts of the electricity and water infrastructure finishes very soon, there will be additional electricity and drinking water for the first time for 1 million people.

There have been achievements. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the lack of preparedness after the invasion in respect of understanding what was required in rebuilding the country and offering people services that made their lives different from how they had been during the days of Saddam Hussein.

My hon. Friend will recall that immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the British Government took steps to ensure that Iraqi women from all the different communities in Iraq were able to come together and have a strong voice in the shaping of the new constitution and the election of the new Parliament. Can he assure me that the Government will continue to support a strong voice for Iraqi women—both directly, through the efforts of his Department, and indirectly, through the work of the Muslim Women’s Network, organised by the Women’s National Commission?

Yes, indeed; my right hon. Friend is right to remind us of that. It is difficult to see how Iraq can move forward if the rights of women are not enhanced and protected. However, I am confident that they will be. Besides anything else, there are now some powerful and vocal female members of the Iraqi Parliament—they will make a difference, if no one else will.