BAGHDAD, Iraq – For two years, Faiza Abdal-Majeed has carried a head scarf in her purse for emergencies.

For a woman in the Iraqi capital four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, these can include passing unlawful checkpoints manned by armed militiamen, making impromptu forays through neighborhoods controlled by religious zealots, and encountering taxi drivers who refuse her fare unless she sports a veil.

In addition, Abdal-Majeed’s job with Iraq’s women’s affairs ministry frequently brings her into contact with government officials, police officers and Muslim clergymen who insist she cover her head before they speak with her.

“Some clerics and politicians are forcing religion into our lives,” said Abdal-Majeed, 45. “We’re being pushed back 1,000 years in time.”

Baghdad once was considered a secular, cosmopolitan metropolis where Islamic customs seldom collided with women’s fashion. Today, however, what women wear – perhaps as much as anything – is evidence that religious ideology has strengthened its grip and forced half the population to submit to traditional Islamic dress.

On the streets of the capital, the most common couture is what women call the Islamic uniform: the bulging black abaya that covers the body from top to toe; the head scarf, or hijab; and the long, dark ankle-length skirts commonly seen on school girls, university students and professionals.

The changes have left a generation of women, especially those more educated and better off financially, struggling to meet expectations.

“I’m always discussing with my friends and family whether or not to wear the veil,” said 21-year-old activist Zaineb Hussein. “I can’t go out without it, but I take it off once I reach my office. I feel completely free without it.”

While extreme Islamists have exerted influence over society for the past four years, many women say the country’s 2-year-old democratically elected parliament is even more responsible for the regression of civil liberties and fashion choices.

“The government differs on all issues except women’s rights,” said Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. “They’re using the new constitution to impose Islamic law and reduce women’s rights.”

As an example, Maysoon Al-Damlugi, among the women who make up 25 percent of Iraq’s 275-member parliament, said most female colleagues in the legislature cover their heads. It is, she said, an indication of how religious fervor has seized the political landscape.

“The abaya and hijab are political symbols,” said the 45-year-old Al-Damlugi, who refuses to cover her head and is working on a constitutional amendment to ban discrimination among all minority groups in Iraq, including women.

The shifting attitudes have many people concerned that Iraq is moving closer to a theocracy similar to neighboring Iran, where women are required by law to cover their heads, even as other countries in the region are seemingly advancing women’s liberties.

Bushra Yousef, 51, is the managing editor of an Iraqi women’s magazine who fled from Baghdad to Damascus in December after threats on her life. She said women in the Syrian capital enjoy more autonomy in dress than their Iraqi counterparts.

“Syrian women have freedom to choose what they wear,” Yousef said by telephone from Damascus. “Women in Iraq are often forced to wear Islamic uniform – even Christian women.”

Ragadaa Manuale, a 36-year-old Christian, confirmed that view.

“Sometimes the men harass me when I go to pick up my daughter from school,” said Manuale, a secretary who lives in central Baghdad and is among the Christian population (roughly 3 percent) in Iraq. “I just wear (a head scarf) for security.”

Confronted with these news demand, many Iraqi women are picking their fights on how and when to protest and express themselves.

Some, like Mohammed, are digging in because “if we surrender our rights now, we may lose them forever.”

Others choose more subtle protests.

Suaad Mohammed Ali, a 35-year-old seamstress, describes her clientele as well-educated middle- and upper-class professionals. She said women are bringing her ready-made clothes and magazine photos of designs to illustrate the alterations they want.

“Women are always asking about the latest fashions,” said Ali, who wears an abaya when working her sewing machine behind a storefront window along a heavily trafficked road in the bustling Karrada district. “They wear them to private gatherings with family and friends.”

But like all aspects of life here, the women’s clothing business is suffering from security concerns.

Zaineb Hassan Nassir, 26, the manager of the Al-Masara Clothing Store in Baghdad, whose shop sells sweaters, blouses and tight-fitting embroidered jeans for $5 to $12, said the store has difficulty covering its $450 monthly rent.

“People are afraid to be out,” said Nassir, who was concerned one recent morning that an Iraqi army checkpoint just a few feet from her shop door would draw an attack. “I asked them to move it because people will be less likely to come inside if they’re out front.”

And shops in upscale quarters like Arasat are keeping shorter hours or closing, fearing kidnapping and robbery.

“I considered buying or renting a shop in this area before because business was good here, but now many shops are empty,” said Tarik Zia, 47, who works in a shop called Al-Jaah in Arasat. Zia said he closed his own store in the hazardous Dora sector in south Baghdad.

Samara Yousef Elias, 29, who owns the Salam Fashion Boutique in central Baghdad, said she has little walk-in business but about 25 core customers who make appointments to visit her shop whenever she alerts them to new merchandise.

The most commonly purchased items here are midriff tops – costing around $4.50 and popular among younger women – and three-piece business suits priced at $39.

Elias, who wore a black shawl stylishly arranged over a turtleneck with her hair loosely pulled back, explained the most expensive items still selling in her shop are negligees, which run up to $155.

“Women still want to spend money on something special they can wear for their husbands in private,” she said.

In her shop one day last month, Elias displayed a simple ankle-length khaki skirt across a glass counter to one customer in a head scarf as another swathed in a black abaya covetously sifted through a rack of brightly colored shirts and sweaters. But before Elias could approach the potential client, the woman walked out.

James Palmer wrote this story for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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