29 October 2003
“So do you have long hair or short hair underneath your scarf?” I asked Zahrah, one of the young women who works as a translator in my office building in Baghdad. “You’re not supposed to ask me that,” she replied with a slightly embarrassed smile, touching the white cloth that covered her head as she did so. “Oh, sorry,” I told her, “I didn’t know. I was just curious.” There was a slightly awkward pause. “That’s okay,” she said, “If you must know, it is long.” The next day she wore a red scarf over her head, instead of her normal white one. “You look very nice,” I said. “Oh this,” she said coyly. “I just thought I’d be different today.”
Zahrah helps us organize weekly events for local women interested in starting their own businesses. Almost all of the women who attend these meetings are Muslim, and several of them are incredibly devout; so much so that they wear the complete black veil-robe-glove ensemble so that you cannot make out any of their features. “It’s great to see so many familiar faces,” I said recently to a packed auditorium half populated by these folks.
“I don’t think they got my joke,” I said to Zahrah afterwards. “I thought it was funny,” she said with a laugh. Zahrah, who does cover her head, but not her face, was a veterinarian before the war. Her mother is an engineer. “Wow,” I said when I learned that fact, “That is not the stereotype the world has of Arab Muslim women.” “What do they think of us?” she asked earnestly. “Well, when they see you dressed all in black, wearing the scarves and the robes and the veils they think you are…” I paused, not wanting to come to the end of the road I’d just taken. “They think we’re what?” she insisted. “They think…you are…somewhat…crazy,” I admitted. Zahrah furrowed her eyebrows and kept me holding my breath for a few seconds before she smiled and let out a laugh. She then slapped my forearm and said, “You should hear what we say about you!”
The women of Iraq are an interesting mix of traditional and modern, highly learned and completely illiterate. The fault lines aren’t straight or clean. Wealthy, university educated ladies will cover their heads and wear long gowns to hide their feminine form. Some others wear tight jeans, T-shirts, and make-up, drawing the attention of GIs and Iraqi construction workers alike. Some are toothless and sun-baked, black-clad and full of audible woe. Others are smartly dressed in business suits and headscarves, conducting their affairs quietly and professionally. Some listen to the wailing “habibis” of Um Kalthoum, some to the “oh-oh-ohs” of Britney Spears, some to both. They gossip like hens and fight like tigers to better the lot of their families. What Americans think of as dating is unheard of in these parts; marriages are most often arranged. They are virgins until they say “I do” and, with only a few exceptions, stay wedded to the same man forever. They envy some of the opportunities enjoyed by their American sisters, but condemn them as whores for stories they hear of promiscuity, drunkenness, and frequent divorce. When confronted by me with the fact that a married, female Iraqi former government official was known to sleep with her superiors, one of a group of black-clads replied, “I think her mother was American.” Everyone present, myself included, laughed.
“Make sure you call your mother as often as you can,” one of them told me at the end of our meeting. “I’m sure she worries about you very much.” The women on either side of her nodded their heads in agreement underneath their sheets; like oscillating bumps pressed against a curtain.