IN EVERY story about the aftermath of the Iraqi election there seems to be the same sentence punctuated by the same question mark. What does the victory of a Shi'ite Muslim alliance mean? Will the new constitution be written according to religious laws? Will the clergy determine the rights or the lack of rights for women?
Questions about Iraqi women rumble across an America that sent its daughters as well as its sons to battle. They echo in the words of the president who has promised that ''young women across the Middle East will hear the message that their day of equality and justice is coming." But will they?
Until now, the discussion about the future of Iraqi women has been framed as a conflict between secular and religious camps. For the most part, advocates of women's rights talked in a secular voice, while opponents talked in religious tones.
In the wake of this election, the struggle over the status of Iraqi mothers, wives, and daughters may well have to shift to religious grounds.
When you use the word ''sharia" and talk about the Islamic code, most Americans assume there is a single set of laws to be lifted and applied like a reactionary grid over every country that calls itself Islamic. But scholars describe something quite different: a rich set of moral principles and varied, evolving laws.
Sharia may literally mean ''the path to God," but the legal cobblestones are different in nearly every Muslim country and subculture. Nations as progressive on women's roles as Tunisia and as repressive as Saudi Arabia both defend their family laws as sharia.
Not surprisingly, the Koran is as open to debate and interpretation as the Bible. Elora Shehabuddin at Harvard Divinity School compares it to the movement to abolish slavery: ''Two groups read the same text and came up with different interpretations." So too, she says, ''One can argue that the spirit of Islam is justice for everyone. Or one can argue that men should be superior and that's the end of it."
On the matter of polygamy, for example, one passage in the Koran seems to allow men to take four wives as long as they treat them equally. But another passage describes the impossibility of treating these wives equally. So the Tunisian reading of the Koran outlaws polygamy while in Saudi Arabia, polygamy is a man's prerogative. In some Muslim countries, polygamy is even grounds for divorce.
The laws of sharia vary as well on modesty -- a long-sleeve blouse or a burka. They even vary on inheritance. The once-liberal laws that gave daughters half the inheritance of sons have been modified and equalized in some countries, but not in others. And if the Saudis find a reason in the 1,400-year-old Koran to ban women from driving automobiles, other countries scoff at this reading.
If politics hinges on religion, religion is also political.
''Iraqi women," says UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, ''have a reputation for being persistent in terms of their rights. I'm skeptical that anyone will be successful in rolling back their rights. The population is too diverse and the women too educated." One of the top contenders for prime minister, a religious Shi'ite, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, claims his doctor-wife as his modern credential.
So no one expects Iraqi women to be kept from the schools or from the highways or, certainly, from the polling booths. A third of the members of parliament are women. At the same time, there are places in Iraq where women no longer dare to go out into the streets uncovered. Some were assassinated because they dared to run for office.
But in many Muslim countries the public square is governed by secular laws and the private sphere by religious laws. That's likely to happen in Iraq. What we have to watch is family laws about marriage, divorce, child custody, and ''obedience" to husbands.
No less a woman's advocate than Zainab Salbi, head of Women for Women International, says, ''Let's not be surprised, let's be prepared." Iraqi women, she says, have to be prepared to follow the lead of Muslim women in other countries and argue their rights in the language of sharia.
Iraqi women need a prominent role in drafting the constitution. As Salbi says, ''Women are the barometer of the whole society. If women's rights are restricted and they are pushed back to their homes, they will pull back the whole society."
They are also engaged in a dance between politics and religion that is not all that foreign to our own ears. Secular or sharia? What the laws are called will be less important than what they say.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is email@example.com.