Like many girls with visions of romance, Ban Alwan has been dreaming of her big day for years and she's been fantasising about the dress she will wear to her engagement party. She's often thought about the style of the dress, the colour and how she will do her makeup and hair.
And like a lot of other young women, Alwan searched everywhere for that special dress. She's gone shopping with friends and scoured local stores but she hadn't managed to find anything that fulfilled all of her specifications.
Then while cruising on Facebook one day, Alwan saw a very beautiful dress - it was violet, with a narrow waist and full skirt and to Alwan, it looked like the kind of thing that Hollywood actresses wear when accepting awards.
So the young Iraqi woman ordered the dress, by writing to the seller on Facebook. In Iraq, Facebook has replaced standard website shopping some time ago and is becoming increasingly popular. Sellers make a living by placing pictures and short descriptions on their Facebook pages, and buyers scroll through the posts to find what they want. On Facebook Iraqis sell everything from clothing to cosmetics to guns - its common practise here.
Alwan waited for two weeks for the "Hollywood dress" as she described it, to arrive at her house; the shop would deliver it to her home. But the moment she saw the dream dress, her hopes were shattered. The dress didn’t look anything like the picture she had seen online. It just looked like an ordinary dress and worth nowhere near the price she had paid for it.
And she had no way of getting her money back or complaining to the sellers of the dress.
When she ordered the dress, Alwan says an employee of the supposed company visited her home, took down notes about sizes and colours and addressed her respectfully, then took the money and left. “When he delivered the dress to me, it was in a box,” Alwan told NIQASH. “And he said that if I had any complaints I could get in touch with the company on its Facebook page.”
Alwan is not the only young Iraqi woman who has fallen for the tricks of online traders. Internet shopping is becoming a major phenomenon in Iraq. It’s particularly important in some areas where often the women of the house – and in particular, the unmarried women – are not allowed to go out by themselves. This can be due to religious conservatism, bad traffic or worrying security conditions. Additionally, fathers and brothers are often disinclined to spend hours trailing their female relatives around a shopping mall.
But shopping online clearly has its pitfalls. Many of those who believe they became victims of fraudsters say the biggest problem is misrepresentation of the goods they ordered. The pictures online do not match the actual goods delivered. And often where this happens, it will turn out the company doesn’t exist either.
Fatima Abd tells a similar story. She wanted to buy a television and found a suitable product on a Facebook page. But when the television turned up at her house, it was smaller than the one pictured online and didn’t have the same technical specifications.
“I saved up all this money over several months to buy the television and I lost it all,” Abd lamented. “I ended up with a TV that has bad quality pictures and which is smaller than it should be.”
Abd has no real recourse. She says she’s so angry that she wants to throw the television into the rubbish.
As for Zeina Majid, she bought new jeans online. “They looked so perfect for me and the price was good,” Majid says. “I wanted to wear them to university and I just knew all the other girls would be jealous.”
Majid contacted the people running the Facebook page and organized for payment and for the jeans to be delivered. “It was much easier for me to do this because my father won’t let me go to the market alone, because of the security in Baghdad,” Majid explained.
But when the jeans showed up at her house, Majid saw they were not at all like the ones pictured. And the packet also had the wrong address on it. At first, she says, she thought she had received the wrong item by mistake. But after she tried several times to write to the people running the website, she realized she had fallen for a fraud.
In fact, Majid says, she’s not angry, just embarrassed. “All my friends at university made fun of me and the pants,” she complains.
Noor Zaydoun, who markets clothing on another Facebook page, has advice for the hapless young women.
“People tend to buy something because of fancy advertisement and they don’t bother to check anything else,” Zaydoun told NIQASH. “They should be looking to see whether the advertiser has their own separate website and a physical address. This means they have somewhere to complain to if things go wrong.”
Of course, not everyone is upset by online shopping in Iraq. Many more women have had good experiences.
Intisar Kathem says she successfully purchased almost all of her household’s electrical appliances online. She says everything she paid for was as it was described and pictured online. Kathem says she bought from a company she had previously actually been to in Baghdad and she recommends others do the same.