Children in Iraq could be legally married before the age of nine under legislation tabled this week that introduces new religious restrictions on women's rights.

As almost its last act before elections at the end of the month, the Iraqi parliament looks likely to pass new marital rules for its majority Shia community with a draft law criticised by human rights activists as "legalised inequality".

The legislation has been approved by the governing coalition in an effort to attract support from Shia Muslims in the April 30 vote. Current Iraqi law sets the legal age for marriage at 18 without parental approval and states that girls as young as 15 can be married only with a guardian's approval. It does not allow for special provisions according to sect.

An Iraqi woman walks with her fully veiled daughter in Baghdad. Photo / AFP

But the legislation, known as the Jaafari law, introduces rules almost identical to those of neighbouring Iran, a Shia-dominated Islamic theocracy.


While there is no set minimum age for marriage, the section on divorce includes rules for girls who have reached the age of nine.

Marital rape is condoned by a clause that states women must comply with their husband's sexual demands. Men are given guardianship rights over women and the law also establishes rules governing polygamous relationships.

Hanaa Edwar, the head of the charity Al-Amal ("Hope" in Arabic), has campaigned against the law as a setback for women's rights, saying: "It turns women into tools for sexual enjoyment. It deletes all their rights."

Supporters of the law, named after a Shia Muslim school of jurisprudence, say it simply regulates practices already existing in day-to-day life.