Unlike in some of the more alternative neighbourhoods of Europe, it is fairly unusual to see a teenage boy wearing red lipstick, roaming the streets of an Iraqi city, particularly an Iraqi city like Nasiriyah. Yet local teen, Nawras* does exactly that. To match his more radical look, he wears a black chain with a silver skull on it, tight pants and a transparent shirt with a few buttons open, exposing his chest.
Nawras, who’s still at high school, is what is commonly known in Iraq as an “emo”. These young people dress a little bit like the emos known in the west for their black, long and spiky hair and their dark clothing. But in Iraq, the motivations for dressing like this are a little different. It’s more about being part of another subculture than it is about musical tastes.
Nawras has become accustomed to the comments and harassment he gets when he’s walking around dressed as he is. He tells NIQASH that he feels as though he is a beautiful girl walking down the street, being harassed for her good looks. Sometimes he says he feels great about being so different but at other times, the things people say and the way they stare frighten him.
We are considered a menace to society. People think we are devil worshippers.
Ihsan*, 22, feels the same. His hair falls over his face and as he speaks, he plays with his long fringe. Ihsan, who works in his family’s mobile phone store, is also an Iraqi emo. Several years ago two of Ihsan’s friends were killed by extremist groups in Baghdad, he says. One of his emo friends was killed in Dora in southern Baghdad and the other in the New Baghdad neighbourhood. Ihsan heard that extremist militias and some members of the police had started a crackdown on emos because they are different.
A lot of Iraqis also believe that if a young person is dressed like an emo, they must also be homosexual. Many religious people consider homosexuality a sin. There is also a strong reaction against anybody who looks different in more conservative parts of Iraq.
“It was then that me and my friends started to get really scared,” Ihsan told NIQASH. “I seriously started to think about leaving Iraq. My family wouldn’t let me but I keep on dreaming about emigrating.”
Previously this kind of alternative look was almost unheard of in Nasiriyah, which, in common with other southern Iraqi cities, has a fairly conservative culture. However today these kinds of young men are more courageous and one sees more of them in the south; militias are preoccupied with other issues and that gives them some small freedom to dress as they like.
The phenomenon is nothing new, says Abdul-Razak Ali, a local sociologist. “It’s a more popular phenomenon in Iraqi cities now but it’s not a new one,” Ali told NIQASH. “It was also around in the past but given the conservatism in society, nobody dared to talk about it. Thanks to globalization and new patterns of consumption as well as a culture that prizes outward appearances, it is becoming more obvious in Iraq.”
Mental health counsellor Saleh Hussein believes that the desire to do something different, or to look different, is actually a normal part of adolescence in many cultures, including Iraq’s.
For example, Abu Janat, the owner of a local barber shop, says that he often gets Iraqi emos coming to his store. “It’s embarrassing but they are some of my favourite customers,” he says. “They like to use a lot of makeup and they pay good money to make themselves look more beautiful. The main problem is that they are so demanding. They want their eyebrows to be like a girl’s and they want all the hair removed from their faces. They usually want their skin to be soft and they also ask for special haircuts.”
Nawras often meets with friends in a Nasiriyah café that opened three years ago. It is similar to many other local cafes in that it is a hall with chairs and tables. However, the clientele is unusual for Nasiriyah. It consists of emo-style youths as well as young men who are open about the fact they are gay, at least, they do inside the café. They come here to smoke, drink coffee, play on their mobile phones and listen to music. Some of the young men come to meet potential romantic partners.
Hammoudi*, whose nickname is Cruz, says that it is not just emos coming here. “A lot of the young men who come here are obsessed with fashion and trends,” he says. “But some of us are also here to meet men.”
Sajo – who will only share his nickname - agrees. The teenager says he knows he’s been attracted to men since he was at school. He eventually left school because he was not doing well academically and because other students continuously teased him about the feminine way he dressed. These days Sajo says he spends a lot of time online, looking for new friends via Facebook pages dedicated to Iraqi emos and also online with his lover, communicating via online cameras.
Sajo says he feels like a normal person in every way, except for his feelings about the standards of masculinity imposed on young Iraqi men – he hates this.
A lot of his socializing is done in private. Often these young men will go to meet others at one of their homes and there, Sajo says, “we will wear the clothes we like, play the music we like and watch movies”.
“But we are still considered a menace to society,” Sajo exclaims. “There are also social media sites that say this, they say we threaten society.”
Another young man at the café, Firas, a science graduate, says he has lots of emo friends but he himself is not one. “Unlike what many people think emos don’t worship Satan nor are they vampires. Nor do they believe in everything that young Westerners do,” Firas told NIQASH. “It is all so exaggerated. Some of the guys here are attracted to some Western ideas and some may have sexual relationships with other men, but it is all within certain limits.”
*Not their real names.