Monday, January 4, 2010

One woman's account of having to cover her head in Iraq

By Dalya Hassan

BAGHDAD -- "You have to wear a hijab," my husband told me shortly after we got married. "Don't argue with me over this issue."

With those words, he started imposing his will. It was the first tax I had to pay for getting married, the same one many of my female friends have had to pay in a country that sometimes pretends to be secular -- a country called Iraq.

Feeling as if I was being chained, I reluctantly put on the black veil over my head before heading to work one morning.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw another face, another person and I murmured to myself: "Who is this, and why do I have to accept this?"

Having male relatives force women to wear the hijab is not new in Iraq.

It began happening routinely during the final years of the regime of Saddam Hussein. He encouraged women to cover their heads and urged men to impose the hijab on mothers, wives and daughters. At the time, Hussein was pushing Iraqis to become more religious.

Iraqis of different backgrounds tried to outdo each other to prove their religiosity in an effort to earn the praise of the dictator. Some wore the garment out of duress; others wore it willingly, as a sign of modesty and piety.

After 2003, wearing the hijab became a means of protection. Many women opted to wear the veil to protect themselves from dogmatic militiamen who kidnapped and murdered people they deemed secular. Being beautiful or flashy made women particularly vulnerable to kidnappings and other attacks.

In Basra province, in southern Iraq, this trend became so pervasive that some groups forced Christian women to cover up.

Wearing a hijab during Baghdad's sweltering summers can be maddening. But there have been two silver linings in all of this: It protects my hair from sandstorms and rain, and it has pleased my husband, a reminder that sometimes we do things we don't like out of love.

Still, I can't help but sigh each time I think about how I dressed just a year ago when I went to the market. I used to wear short skirts and shirts with short sleeves.

It is especially frustrating to see the variety of modern clothes imported from Syria and Turkey on display in Iraqi stores: short skirts, sleeveless blouses.

It is contradictory that those items have become fashionable, even as more women are covering up and the men in our society are telling us they are not appropriate.

As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. In an effort to bridge societal norms with fashion trends, Iraqi girls are finding ways to discreetly push the envelope.

Some wear shirts under bulkier ones. Wearing short skirts over pants has also become popular.

"Do you know what I wish right now?" I asked my husband recently. "I wish I could force you to wear this hijab so you could experience my feelings."

My husband remained silent, and his eyes reddened with anger. I knew better than to protest. It is useless to swim upstream in this country called Iraq.

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