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Saturday, October 09, 2004

A Veil Over Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Mayada Chazi does not think of herself as particularly religious. She's more interested in talking about boys, reading English novels, or dreaming of visiting New York. But she has taken to wearing the head scarf of a devout Muslim woman.

Veil Has Only Recently Reappeared in Iraq

Many women who bared their heads and dressed in Western-style clothes in Saddam Hussein's secular Iraq have started covering up, some out of Islamic devotion, others in a desperate bid to shield themselves from the torrent of violence that has swept the country since the dictator's fall.

Wrapped in scarfs and cloaks, the ghostlike figures shrink into the background, barely noticed as they drift past the bomb craters, sandbagged checkpoints and blast walls along Baghdad's chaotic streets.

Chazi's Muslim family grew up in a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Baghdad. Their mother was a stylish dresser who eschewed head scarves for herself and her three daughters. But when Chazi returned to her university English course after the U.S. invasion, her father insisted she cover her hair to avoid drawing attention, particularly from the gangs that have turned kidnapping into a lucrative profession.

Chazi did so under protest, pairing a sparkly blue scarf with a long jeans skirt, tight red shirt and blue nail polish on her fingers and toes.

"Do I look like a religious girl to you?" she said with a grudging laugh.

Many in Baghdad initially celebrated the U.S.-led invasion for bringing an end to decades of oppression. But the promise of new freedom swiftly gave way to an onslaught of car bombs, mortar and rocket fire, gunfights and crime that have terrorized the country.

A scarf may seem slim protection, but Chazi says it helps her melt into the background and she has made her peace with it. Besides, if she stops wearing one now, she says, everyone will think she is chasing men.

"People here judge by your appearance," she said. "No matter what your personality, if you are a veiled woman, they will judge you better."

Fear is not the motivation for all. For some women the hijab is an expression of religious freedom after decades of enforced secularism that eased somewhat from the 1980s when Saddam sought support from fellow Arabs while in a war with Iran.

But even with that easing, Saddam's Sunni Muslim-dominated regime continued to persecute the country's majority Shiites, leading many women to avoid overtly religious garb for fear of catching the eye of his notorious security police. Even a head scarf provoked continual harassment, they say.

Rabab Khaidr, who for years was the only Baghdad airport employee in hijab, was blindfolded with her own scarf and bundled into a car as she left work one day in 1985.

During three months in detention, she suffered electric shocks and beatings. Her hands were tied behind her back and hooked to a ceiling fan, leaving her suspended until she felt her shoulders would break, all because of the suspicion aroused by her scarf, she says.

"I felt so happy when the regime was ousted because we got rid of .... the question marks raised about us because of our hijab," she said at a recent Quran reciting contest.

Salama al-Khafaji, one of only three women on Iraq's interim National Council, takes pride in wearing an all-enveloping black cloak, known as an abaya, which leaves only her face showing.

Al-Khafaji, who as a member of the former U.S.-appointed Governing Council survived an assassination attempt May 27 that killed her teenage son, grew up in a deeply religious household. But it was years before she dared wear the abaya. Unlike Chazi, the 45-year-old dentist does not find covering up oppressive.

"An abaya doesn't cover your education or your mind," al-Khafaji said in her study, surrounded on all four walls by shelves of religious books. "It covers your body only."

The new freedom of expression, however, seems to have persuaded some people they can force their preferences on everyone, grumbles Rasha Ghalib, a Christian bookkeeper.

She has been engaged for eight months, but the couple has gone out in public on only one date. It was a disaster, Ghalib said. Even with her fiance at her side, cars honked at her and men taunted her for wearing trousers.

"It is the same people, but a year ago they were not like this," Ghalib, 28, said in her mother's curtained living room. "It was as if they are now free to bring out all that hostility."

Her fiance could do nothing but seethe. "If I object, maybe they have a gun," said the 34-year-old civil servant, who gave his name only as Laith.

In the southern city of Basra, a Shiite stronghold, women have had dye thrown on them for not wearing a hijab, and even some Christians are wearing scarves to avoid harassment.

The dress code isn't so rigid in Baghdad, but Ghalib no longer ventures out in the knee-high skirts and short-sleeved blouses she wears at home. "People no longer keep their eyes or their words to themselves," she said.

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