Thursday, April 28, 2005

BAGHDAD — A girl in her late teens sits under a hair dryer reading a fashion magazine while an assistant applies a heavy dose of makeup to an older woman. Britney Spears surveys proceedings from the wall.

The Princess Salon in Baghdad is a place of reassuring normalcy. But the women’s talk is tinged by fatalism, because this beauty salon, perhaps the only place where many women can cocoon themselves from reality, could be disappearing.

The most fashionable color in the capital these days is black, as the desire for anonymity and the resurgence of conservative Islam combine to force women into conformity.

“Life has changed for the worse,” said Bushra Mahmoud, 40, a mother of three who was sitting in the waiting area. “There is a creeping zealousness among men and women that is really frightening. You sit on the bus and have abuse heaped on you by the fanatics because you are not wearing the hijab [Islamic head covering]. These things never used to happen.”

Intimidation of women for religious reasons has become more common in the past year, and those who do not cover themselves are often the targets of kidnappers. Salons have been bombed and the Princess Salon’s chief stylist, Nazar Zadayan, says he has been threatened several times.

The elections in January that the White House welcomed as the start of an era of democracy in the Middle East have helped to entrench the strictures imposed on women. The winning coalition has close ties to conservative clerics, many of whom believe in the subservient role of women.

“The Americans came into Afghanistan and the women were able to take off their burkas and taste freedom. Here, the Americans come in and we are forced to cover ourselves and become chattels. Democracy will crush the spirit of the Iraqi woman,” Mrs. Mahmoud said.

The new government insists that women are not being repressed. It cites a legal provision ensuring that a third of the new parliament’s 275 members had to be women.

But Songol Chapuk, the head of the Iraqi Coalition for Women, said the religious parties ensured that only women with conservative values were selected as legislators.

“It is telling that when we marked International Women’s Day last month not a single female [legislator] turned up for the commemorations.”

Mrs. Chapuk refuses to wear the hijab and even has worn trousers, which brought numerous threats from radicals. Women with similar views have been killed.

Conservative female legislators say the idea that the hijab or abaya — the traditional gown — stifles women is a Western misconception.

Salama al-Khafaji, perhaps Iraq’s foremost female conservative, said American officials refused to invite her to Iraqi Governing Council meetings when she was a member because she wore the abaya.

“They thought I was a stupid, extreme religious woman, but I am a dentist and one of the few who can perform oral reconstructive surgery in Iraq,” she said. “I have covered my body; I have not covered my mind.”

Dr. al-Khafaji said the government has no intention of forcing women to cover up, but many Iraqis fear the new government is intent on turning the country into a theocracy.

The terrors of war also have played a part in persuading some Iraqi women to return to traditions and God.

“Before the war, I never used to wear the hijab,” said Dalya Khalid, a student. “But nowadays, not wearing it makes me feel horrible inside. We have to repent to God to see us through this war. I am so scared of dying.”

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