NAJAF, Iraq, July 30 (UPI) -- A group of angry protesters scuttled a quiet, cake-and-coffee reception to honor Najaf lawyer Nadal Nasser Hussein, who was to be sworn in Wednesday as the first female judge the city has ever had.
Around 40 men, most of them lawyers at the courthouse and some clutching a copy of a June 5 religious decree, chanted "No woman judge" in English outside a paneled conference room. Nadal, 44, sat impassively inside, ringed by judges, her would-be colleagues. She has seen this before. It will pass, she says.
Nadal was the first woman lawyer in this holy city, the center of the Shiite branch of Islam, and she endured the same treatment 13 years ago.
"It is a sin to have a female on the court," raged Abdul Khadim al-Damawad, a lawyer at the courthouse. "It is against our religion! (Sayyed Ali) al-Sestani said so, and so did Moqtada Sadr!"
Both men are Shiite clerics, but Sestani is Najaf's grand ayatollah and his opinion has great weight. He issued a fatwa - or decree -- on June 5 declaring that alcohol in perfume does not violate the law against drinking. He also said only men can be judges because the job requires not just intellect and sanity, but also masculinity.
It is a good enough reason for the men outside, but Nadal politely dissents. A small smile plays on her round face as the chants get louder. It is not a bitter, but an amused smile.
"That's wrong, Islam doesn't say 'the prophet says no women judges,'" Nadal says through an interpreter, another female lawyer named Rahab Mahmoud, 33.
Both women are fully covered in black cloaks and colorful scarves, but they eschew the head to toe abaya worn by most religious Shiite women.
"She wants to prove to all the women in our world a woman can do anything she wants in Iraq," Rahab says.
Not on this day, though.
"We're going to postpone it for now," says Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin, commander of the 1st Battalion 7th Marines. Conlin has been huddling with the chief justice and several lawyers and judges. He crosses the room to Nadal and pulls up a chair for Spc. Rachel Roe, 29, the apple-cheeked Harvard-educated, Arabic-speaking Wisconsin lawyer who has overseen the resurrection of the criminal courts.
Roe hangs her blonde head as Conlin begins to speak. This is her pet project. She doesn't want to shove Nadal down anyone's throat.
There are thousands of widows and children in the city whose cases would be better made before a female judge, but no one will be required to appear before Nadal. In Iraq, attorneys can shop their case to any judge they think will be friendly.
"I'm very proud of what your accomplishments have been to this point. It is my opinion we should so this in Najaf. I also understand I am in the most religious conservative city. I'm afraid right now if we do this ... (it) might cost ... (us) in other areas," Conlin says. "I request your patience as I try to work this out."
"We need to get people's opinions behind us," he says.
He confesses to being surprised at the anger outside. He notes there is a women's political party and says he has been impressed with how vocal and involved the women are.
But Roe suspected this would be the response, and wanted to handle the appointment privately. They made no public announcement, but in Najaf, word gets around quickly.
"Trying to do it quick and quietly would have worked but then there would have been a firestorm afterward," Roe says. "Part of the reason (Conlin's) had so much success is because he has taken the time to learn the culture.
"I just have to pay more attention to that."
Nadal would not be the first woman judge in Iraq. There are five already in Baghdad and a female lawyer was just appointed to the federal criminal court in the city.
But as Conlin has learned from three months working here, Shiism asserts itself in unexpected ways. No one objected when a woman was appointed to the city council. No one batted an eye at the school board elections that were run by a Shiite woman. Moreover, the chief justice of Najaf was Nadal's first employer and he supported her appointment, as did about a dozen of the 29 judges in the city. There are 12 open judgeships, vacated by Baath Party members who have fled the city.
"We went around and asked all the lawyers, and they all respect her," Roe said. "If it is going to be anyone, it is going to be her,"
Deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein prohibited women from entering the judicial institute -- a requirement for judges - in 1980, but there were already women judges at work then. There have been none since, at least until now. All of Saddam's dictates have been cancelled, and the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority will open the judicial institute again next month in Baghdad. Women will be included in the first class, Roe said.
Nadal does not raise her voice. She explains to Conlin, "In 1987, the same thing happened. There were protests. After one year, I started working (as a lawyer) and everyone now knows me. I am from this area. What they say is wrong. Our religion says it's OK."
Eltfat Abud Asadah, 33, also a woman lawyer but covered fully by the abaya, weighs in.
"It is a sin to be a female judge," she says.
Nadal counters, "What they say, they are all jealous people."
Eltfat shoots back, "I could be a candidate to be a judge but I won't do it because it is the law!"
Nadal turns back to Conlin to explain the progress of social revolution: "Before I was born, we had protests against having females in schools."
"I'm on your side," he laughs. "I'm married to a doctor and she makes more than I do. Believe me I am on your side."
He turns to Roe.
"We'll make it work," Conlin says. "We've just got to prep the battlefield."
He will talk to the city council and to the clerics, and see if he can get Sestani to clarify or change his fatwa. Sestani makes a habit of keeping out of municipal affairs that do not directly involve the mosque, and Conlin suspects -- or hopes -- he may have been only addressing the requirements of being a judge in Islamic religious courts, not the city courts.
"There are some real requirements to having a woman judge," he says. "It's a predominant issue. ... we simply have to address some concerns."
He thinks in a few weeks they can try again.
"But ultimately I'm here for them (the Iraqis)," he tells United Press International. "If it turns out they are not ready for this, there may be places for her to go, just not in Najaf."
Najaf is the capital of the province, but there are other cities nearby that may accept a female judge more readily.
Nadal says Conlin's ruling is "OK," and digs into the gaily decorated but dry cake that was meant to celebrate her promotion.
Roe reluctantly picks at the piece set before her.
"You know, they are now using a word they've never used before," she muses. "'Judge,' with a feminine ending. 'Khadiya,' instead of 'Khadi.' I don't know everything about Arabic, but I've never heard that word before."
"The idea is in now their heads," she says, smiling.
Nadal slips unnoticed out a side door to a clutch of waiting women, their outlines obscured by head-to-toe black.