If Iraq is to succeed as a model democracy in the Middle East, the next few days will be among the most crucial since its liberation from Saddam Hussein’s iron grip. At stake is whether women will be full partners in Iraq’s new freedom or whether they will be relegated to second-class status, denied equal rights and prevented from full participation in Iraq’s society, economy and government.

One of the results of Saddam’s many wars and political assassinations is that today women make up about 60 percent of the Iraqi population. By necessity, these women have participated in, and contributed collectively with, their brothers in the functioning and rebuilding of Iraq. Iraq’s many widows carry the burden of their family’s needs under harsh circumstances.

Iraq’s new constitution must be completed by Monday. Unfortunately for Iraqi women, draft versions of the constitution are cause for alarm. All have cited Islam as either the only or a main source of law and open the door for different interpretations of sharia to be imposed.

The imposition of religious-based laws would bring about a great injustice. Under some Islamic sectors, once a wife is divorced she has to leave her house with possibly no place to go. Certain Islamic sectors allow for the marriage of girls as young as 9. Some interpretations allow for a guardian to force marriage on a girl against her will.

Some sectors mandate that a mother loses custody of a male child when he reaches the age of 2 and a female child when she turns 7. The children then remain in the father’s custody or with his immediate family.

The new Iraq constitution must clearly grant equal rights to all Iraqis and recognize the rights of women. It must also make clear the obligation of all branches of the government to promote full compliance with these laws. Furthermore, Iraq has ratified a number of international conventions guaranteeing the rights of women. These are still binding and must be upheld.

Iraqi women are not opposing Islam as one source of influence in the constitution. Islam respects women. Islam is a great source and guide for inspiration. It maintains the sacred relationship between God and the people. But Islam should be one among many sources to prevent the capricious application of sharia by unaccountable clerics.

The women of Iraq are showing that they are ready to be full participants in a thriving democracy. They have organized protests in the heat of Baghdad summer, out in the open where they are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. They are lobbying the new Iraqi president, prime minister and members of the national assembly. They have organized letter writing campaigns and grass-roots activities. Their drive shows that Iraq can become the model democracy the region so desperately needs. But it will be both a farce and a tragedy if Iraq was liberated from a terrible dictator just to see women lose their rights under a new shape of tyranny.

Basma Fakri is president of the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq.

Click here to read the latest report from Amnesty International: “Iraq: The New Constitution Must Protect Human Rights.”