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BAGHDAD, Sept 24 (AFP) - Women's rights activists in Iraq say rising extremism is restricting their freedom, even as the country prepares to vote on a constitution that is touted as one of the Arab world's most progressive regarding women.
"Women cannot walk freely out in the street," said activist Ban Jamil, who directs the Rasafa Branch of Assyrian Women Union, a local non-governmental organisation in Baghdad.
"Women face lack of respect when they walk uncovered," said Jamil, a Christian, who said women are insulted if they show too much skin or walk in public without wearing the Islamic veil, or hijab, to cover their hair.
She blamed "imported extremist doctrines, which were never experienced in the past" for the new restrictions.
The tide of Islamisation has risen in Iraq as fundamentalist Shiite parties have come to power following the ouster of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Although not enforced by the newly established laws, which were written under US patronage, a conservative dress code is widely observed in much of the war-torn country.
But conservative dressing in Iraq is not as universally strict as in neighbouring Shiite Iran, or ultra-conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia, where women have to cover from head-to-toe when in public.
Dressing modestly in trousers and a long-sleeved shirt -- more likely with a colourful headscarf -- is common among Iraqi women.
Older or very conservative women often wear the traditional black abaya, a kind of loose-fitting, modest dress.
But short sleeves and skirts which were accepted in the past are hardly seen, even in the scorching heat of Baghdad's summer.
"We cover and change the way we dress unwillingly due to pressure," said Jinan Mubarak, a Muslim who heads the Iraqi Centre for Training and Employing Women in Baghdad.
She said some neighbourhoods are off-limits for women if unveiled, saying that women like herself are forced to change their behaviour in such environments.
Iraqi state television -- a shopwindow of the new regime -- allows some female presenters to appear unveiled, despite a clear Shiite influence in its programmes.
However, religious zealots who were curbed under Saddam's secular grip can operate freely now, as evidenced by one notice billboarded in a Baghdad street near a church, Jamil said.
"To all unveiled Muslim sisters and Christian sisters: You should wear a veil because Virgin Mary used to be veiled," it said.
Women are also concerned that the American influence in running post-Saddam Iraq plays a major role in protecting women rights, and that a future departure of US troops might result in further radicalisation.
"This might regrettably be the case, as much as we would like to see the Americans out of Iraq," said Mubarak.
US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has called Iraq's draft constitution the most progressive document in the Muslim world, claiming it ensured women's rights.
"Women have the right to participate fully in public activities," he said in August, pointing out that 25 percent of parliament seats were reserved for women.
But activists say that the current female MPs do not represent women's advocates and were brought in by male-dominated political parties to fill the 25 percent quota.
"These were voted in to fill the quota... None of them serves in the politburo of any of their parties... They are mere mouthpieces," Jamil said.
"We fear the same might happen in the next elections," she added, claiming that independent women have very slim chance of making it into the national assembly.
Several vocal women MPs speak out during live-broadcast parliament sessions and criticise openly the performance of governmental departments, although they are all first-timers.
Eighty-seven women were elected to parliament in the January 30 elections. One has since been killed by insurgents.
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