"For girls," says Merna Mazin, a 20-year-old engineering student at Baghdad University, "life would be tasteless without elegant fashion."
What Mazin calls elegant fashion bears little resemblance to the warm-weather clothes of the U.S. or Europe. It was 104 degrees in Baghdad, and Mazin wore a sleeveless dress over a pair of jeans, with a black long-sleeve shirt covering her arms.
But her hair had no head coveringa small victory for Mazin, a Christian who was forced to wear a traditional Muslim woman's head scarf for two years to avoid being harassed, or worse, by Islamic militias.
Under the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein from 1979Ð2003, life was not easy for Iraqi women, or men for that matter.But during those years, women could work, attend college, and go out without a head scarf or an abayathe cloak-like covering designed to conceal the shape of a woman's body.
When the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 toppled Saddam's regime, several years of chaos, lawlessness, and deadly violence followed. With conservative Islamic militias taking control of large parts of Iraq, women found their fashion choices dictated by Muslim clerics and enforced by armed militiamen who would threaten, kidnap, or even kill women who were provocatively dressedin their view, any woman who wasn't wearing an abaya. Women were often forced to quit their jobs or school and retreat home.
While there is still violence, often deadly, security has improved as Iraqi and American forces and the government in Baghdad have taken back areas that had been controlled by Islamic militias. (The progress on security led President Obama to announce plans earlier this year to withdraw most of the 120,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq by next August, leaving fewer than 50,000 to train Iraqi forces and hunt terrorist cells.)
Today, some young women in Baghdad feel comfortable enough to shed their abayas and dress more like the women they see on satellite TV. They're mostly college students, and they still represent a small proportion of women in the city, most of whom still wear black abayas.
Sitting in a student lounge at Baghdad University, Mais Mowafaq, 20, wore a head covering. But the rest of her outfit could have gotten her killed a few years ago: an ankle-length black skirt, a long-sleeve black shirt, and a silver necklace.
Mowafaq began wearing an abaya after being warned by a neighbor. "Militias did not want women's bodies to be visible because it might charm men," she says. "Charming men is a sin? And it deserves being killed for?" Mowafaq also stopped using cosmetics when her mother told her, "This is not a time of makeup. This is a time of bombs."
Dua'a Salaam Sabri, 23, and her sister, Riam, 16, remember when the only real danger associated with dressing in fashionable clothes was flirting from boys on the street.
But in 2005, two carloads of militiamen drove up as Riamwearing her school uniform of a long skirt and a T-shirtwas walking home with her father. The men tried to kidnap her because she wasn't wearing "respectable clothes." The next day, her mother bought both daughters their first head coverings and abayas, and Riam dropped out of school. "We were sitting at home and couldn't go anywhere," Dua'a says.
They've recently started going out again, but only in the company of their mother. With their abayas in the closet, Dua'a was wearing a tight, knee-length jean skirt, and Riam a body-hugging white top and a snug denim skirt. Each exposed her arms and legs, which is still uncommon here.
'A Modern Veiled Girl'
At Fashion Away, a Baghad clothing shop, owner Hussein Jihad says he sold only traditional garb until recently. Now, he offers leopard-print tops, sleeveless blouses, and miniskirts.
"We are adapting to the situation," Jihad says. "When the situation was bad, we offered only long skirts, and when the situation improved, we started bringing in modern clothes."
Hiba, a 20-year-old engineering student at Baghdad University who asked that her last name not be published out of concern for her safety, says the unsettled times have tested her creativity. As she studied for her finals in the student lounge, she wore a black-lace head covering and a knee-length jean skirt over white tights.
"I like to mix my fashion between secular and Islamic, so I guess I am a modern veiled girl," she says, smiling. "The militias did not succeed in preventing me from primping, but my final exams are."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, December 14, 2009)