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Baghdad Neighborhood Imposes Strict Dress Code On Women

A police officer stands guard as Shi'ite Muslim women walk to the Kadhimiya area of north Baghdad.
A police officer stands guard as Shi'ite Muslim women walk to the Kadhimiya area of north Baghdad.
There used to be two dress codes for women in Baghdad's predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood of Kadhimiya.

On the street, women were free to wear what they wanted in the busy market square -- a market that attracts people from all across the capital.

Only if they decided to enter the shrine complex behind the market did stricter rules apply. There they were required to wear full Islamic dress, including the shoulder to toe "abaya" gown and "hijab" head covering.

Now, things have changed. Vigilantes patrol the major avenues outside the shrine to demand that any women in the area are in full compliance.

Nawf al-Falahi, a women's activist, says one of her acquaintances living in the neighborhood was recently stopped by the self-appointed morality police.

"She and her husband were stopped at a checkpoint at the edge of Kadhimiya. The men around the checkpoint refused to let her pass. They ordered her to go back home and get a shawl to put over her head and shoulders," al-Falahi says.

"Now she keeps a shawl in her handbag and wears it to go in and out of her own neighborhood safely."

Men, too, are targeted by the tighter dress codes. They can no longer wear shorts or tight tops in public, and must have loose trousers and shirts.

Who is behind the strict clothes policy remains a mystery.

The Interior Ministry denies any connection with the policy but also has done nothing to stop the men in the neighborhood who harass women. The practice itself is in line with a trend in Shi'ite shrine cities, like Najaf and Karbala, to impose stricter observance of "hijab," a term that can broadly be used to refer to full Islamic dress.

Pressure From Religious Parties

The change in Kadhimiya divides the district's residents into two camps.

Judi, who owns a shop selling fabrics and dresses in the market, opposes the crackdown.

"We storeowners in Kadhimiya think this policy will prevent customers from coming to the market, with its gold shops, clothes shops, and other places. So I ask those responsible to rethink this. I agree that women should wear hijab inside the shrine, but not on the street," Judi says.

But those who favor the tighter dress code say it shows appropriate respect for the whole neighborhood as a shrine area. One female resident, Rajaa, says that "if women come to this religious place they must respect it."

"They should wear modest clothing without excessive makeup. If I go to a park, or a garden, or a marriage party, is it sensible that I wear the same dress as when I go to a religious city?" Rajaa says.

Women and children sit at the shrine of Imam Mussa al-Kadhim in the district of Kadhimiya.
Women and children sit at the shrine of Imam Mussa al-Kadhim in the district of Kadhimiya.
As the debate over the dress code rages in Kadhimiya, some observers see it as part of a larger question.

That is, whether the boundaries between pious behavior and civic freedom in Iraq are becoming increasingly blurred under the pressure of the religious parties that dominate the government.

Hanaa Edwar, a human rights activist and chairwoman of the Baghdad-based nongovernmental organization Iraqi Amal Association, says that "this decision about the hijab is part of steps by the government and parliament to build a religious state. The Iraqi Constitution calls for a civil state, not a religious state."

Among steps that worry civil rights advocates are moves by the Interior Ministry to increase ties to Iraq's Shi'ite religious establishment.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Mansur, a senior cleric in Baghdad, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that the closer ties include adding a Religious Affairs Department within the ministry.

"There is a department in the Interior Ministry especially for religious matters and the members range in rank from policeman to general," al-Mansur says.

"They come to work in Islamic dress, with black or white turbans (Editor's note: black turbans signify the wearer's family is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad). Some of my own students are among them."

Just how the new department will define its functions remains to be seen.

But activists say they have good reason to watch closely. Neighboring Iran's morality police sprang from the same model. And their powers range from enforcing dress codes to arresting unmarried couples walking in public.

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel, based on reporting by Radio Free Iraq's Moyad al-Haidari and Samira Ali Mandi.

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