- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

BAGHDAD — 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 dictator Saddam Hussein, these emergencies can include passing unlawful checkpoints manned by armed militiamen, impromptu forays through neighborhoods controlled by religious zealots and taxi drivers who refuse her fare unless she covers her hair.

In addition, Mrs. 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 that she cover up before they speak with her.

“Some clerics and politicians are forcing religion into our lives,” said Mrs. 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, 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 head to toe; the head scarf, or hajib; and the long, dark ankle-length skirts commonly seen on schoolgirls, 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.”

Even though extreme Islamists have exerted influence over society for the past four years, many women say the country’s two-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, the 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.”

For example, Maysoon Al-Damlugi, who is among the 25 percent of women in Iraq’s 275-seat 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 hajib are political symbols,” said Miss Al-Damlugi, 45, who refuses to cover her head and is working on a constitutional amendment to ban discrimination in Iraq, including against women.

The shifting attitudes have many people concerned that Iraq is moving closer to a theocracy similar to that of 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 are given more autonomy in dress than their Iraqi counterparts.

“Syrian women have freedom to choose what they wear,” Mrs. 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 Mrs. Manuale, a secretary who lives in central Baghdad and is part of Iraq’s tiny Christian population. “I just wear [a head scarf] for security.”


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