In Iraq, as elsewhere, politics can be a treacherous game. Every alliance and advantage counts. And over the past few years, the demands of their fledgling democracy have seen Iraqi politicians focus on another factor: appearance and the MP make over.
It’s not easy for Iraqi’s to guess how old their MPs are. These days most of them have black hair and they dress elegantly, giving the impression of youth.
But the politico with dyed black hair is hardly unusual in Iraq. During the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, members of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council always appeared on television and in public with freshly coloured black locks. In a sign of the changes that befell them after the US-led invasion of Iraq which toppled Hussein’s regime, they all began to turn up with white or grey hair after they were deposed.
Ordinary Iraqis will always remember seeing Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf and Taha Yassin Ramadan, a member of Hussein’s inner circle and apparently one of his enforcers, turning up on television with undyed hair only months after their leader was deposed.
And the trend toward keeping up appearances has continued since then as local politicians become more aware of what good looks and the right accessories can do for them in voters’ eyes.
Upon being asked about their grooming, hair dye and appearance, most MPs preferred not to comment, telling NIQASH it was a “private matter” and they were free to do what they wished. But it seems clear that, if they had not done so before, most Iraqi politicians usually began dying their hair after they were elected or when they were given a high ranking post. And different styling can signify different things.
For example, MPs who are members of religious groups are obligated to respect a certain dress code whereas liberal or secular MPs are relatively free to dress as they choose.
But even within the religious ranks, there have been more nods to fashion. These religious MPs also want a “new look” but it must happen without disrupting their religious wardrobes. So some of them are choosing to wear a smaller turban and others have trimmed their beards down to a more modern look.
An example is Sheikh Jalaluddin al-Saghir, a leading member of the Islamic Supreme Council, which was one of the most powerful political groups in the country for Shiite Muslims until recently. He used to wear a large turban and a normal beard. Before the end of this session of parliament though, he had started wearing a smaller turban and he had also thinned his beard.
One Iraqi female journalist told NIQASH off the record that she was shocked to receive a late night phone call from an MP who had just defected from his more hard line, religious bloc and joined a more moderate group of politicians. As a result he wanted her opinion on whether he should thin his beard and possibly even dye his hair.
Many MPs joke about what their fellow MPs are wearing and how they style their hair, the same journalist reported. “Many do that after they’ve been elected. Other conservative MPs start making fun of them,” she said, laughing a little herself.
Rings and accessories are also used by some MPs to change or update their appearance. Interestingly the kinds of rings they choose depend on their rank within the party, and even the political party itself. Even more interestingly the members of religious parties tend to wear more rings than most.
A neck tie is also an interesting style statement. It indicates modernity and many have pointed out how current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki never wore a neck tie before 2005. This was part of his image as a conservative, religious person.
And far be it from female politicians in Iraq to be unaware of this trend. More liberal female MPs, the ones who don’t wear headscarves, have also taken to dying their hair to hide any grey.
“And not only liberal women change their looks,” one female politician belonging to the Sadrist bloc, led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told NIQASH. “Women belonging to other blocs have travelled to Beirut to change their style after winning their seats in parliament,” she reported.
They go to Beirut, in Lebanon, because the city is celebrated in the Arab world for its fashion, style and cosmetics. There, the female MPs will spend anything from US$2,000 to US$5,000 in a special salon to have a kind of makeover, which includes hair colour and having eyebrows tattooed.
But of course, not all Iraqi MPs are subject to this trend. Among those who continue on stubbornly with their own white or grey hair are Ali al-Adeeb, the Minister of Higher Education, former Minister of Culture, Mufid al-Jazairi and MP Izzat al-Shahbandar.
In fact, al-Shahbandar says he’s asked for opinions on his hair colour before. And colleagues and female friends apparently all advised him to stay the way he is because, “I look more attractive with white hair and blue eyes,” al-Shahbandar joked.
Meanwhile al-Jazairi, who reckons he has never been tempted to dye despite holding several high ranking parliamentary jobs over his career, told NIQASH he thought feeling young didn’t have anything to do with hair colour.
Feeling young “comes from the inside,” he said. “Many of those who dye their hair are not able to really feel, or act, young. So why should I change my hair colour?” he smiled. “I always feel young.”