Social life in the central Iraqi province of Anbar was always fairly conservative and often religious. And one of the facets of that social life was the fact that most Muslim women there wear headscarves, or hijab. A lot of local women also wore the niqab, the long black dress and head covering that means that the face cannot be seen, and that only the wearer’s eyes are visible. However, since the security crisis that was started by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, attitudes toward the niqab have changed. Once considered by many as an invaluable symbol of a woman’s honour and dignity, it is now being seen with suspicion and fear and even considered an annoyance.
Over the past two years the Islamic State, or IS, group had managed to gain control of many parts of Anbar, which has a mostly Sunni Muslim population; the IS group base their ideology on an extreme, at-times-fantastical version of Sunni traditions. When they took over one of the rules the extremists imposed upon females in the province was that they must all wear the niqab, as well as socks and gloves. Since the group has been pushed out of Anbar though, their plan to popularize the niqab has backfired somewhat. In Anbar today there appears to be a backlash against the full-face and body covering.
“When I left Fallujah after it was liberated from the terrorists, I felt like I had left two prisons,” says one local woman who wished to be known only as Umm Nasir, or the mother of Nasir. “The first prison was the city, where women, men and children all suffered equally. The second prison was inside the black fabric we women were forced to wear. We all looked the same. No one could be distinguished from another.”
When I wore the niqab, people made jokes or accused me of being a terrorist! They said I must be a poor woman from Anbar.
Umm Nasir says she used to wear a head scarf, or hijab, but she would never have chosen to wear the niqab, one of the main reasons being that she suffers from chronic asthma. “Every time I left my house to go shopping, it would be difficult and I almost fainted a dozen times,” she explains how her life changed under the IS group’s rules. “I carry a small tank of oxygen with me. Sometimes it is not even full but I use it as an excuse to lift my veil and see where I am going. Once I was using it when a member of the IS group saw me. He yelled out to me: Woman, cover your face. So I yelled back at him: This is medicine!”
But the backlash against the niqab in Iraq actually started well before the IS group was pushed out of Anbar’s cities.
Nobody forced me to wear the niqab, says Shahad Abd-Allah, a science student at the University of Anbar. She started wearing the full face veil when she was at high school and she says it was voluntary.
“Our group of friends wanted to look modern and fashionable but with a conservative style,” Abd-Allah explains. “So we would match the colours of our head scarves under the niqab.”
But around the time that Abd-Allah started at university, the niqab definitely caused her some problems. “We moved to another part of the city and I started to overhear some people saying that I must be a poor woman from Anbar because of the niqab,” Abd-Allah recalls. “Other people made jokes or accused me of being a terrorist! I felt that, at that stage, my only solution, in order to avoid trouble or unwanted attention for me and anyone I was with, was to remove the veil.”
In some areas Iraqis have become downright suspicious of anyone wearing the niqab, whether justified or not. Many locals suspect that the full-face covering is now used by immoral women who do not want to be identified and there are also plenty of stories of fugitive males, often from the IS group, who have disguised themselves as female, in a niqab, in order to escape justice. Anybody traveling in Iraq has to pass through literally dozens of security checkpoints and at each one, everyone must be able to be identified – this includes women wearing full-face veils. Niqab wearers are often scrutinized more heavily and harassed more about their identification papers than those who are not wearing the all-covering garment.
“My wife has been wearing the niqab for eight years now and she is accustomed to it,” Ahmad al-Badrani, an Anbar taxi driver, told NIQASH. “But over the past two years it has caused us a lot more trouble than it is worth. In particular if we are travelling around the country or if we have to go to government department. We keep having to argue with the officers at the security checkpoints about the fact that they need women at the checkpoints in order to check females. In some cases, we’ve had to have full-blown arguments. And that’s why my wife decided to stop wearing the niqab.”
“I am completely happy with her decision,” al-Badrani says. “I know women with a bad reputation have used the niqab to cover up, so they cannot be identified in public. I actually used to avoid going out with her to public places so we didn’t have to see people staring at us, looking scared or suspicious.”
When I see a woman wearing a niqab get in the taxi, I know the trip will take longer because of security.
When they got married 15 years ago, Munther al-Kubaisi, who is originally from Ramadi in Anbar but who now lives in the suburb of Khadra in Baghdad, says he wanted his wife to start wearing the niqab. But the security crisis has caused the couple to abandon the practice and his wife has only worn a headscarf for a year now.
“As we were driving toward Baghdad, all the men at security checkpoints were able to see my wife’s face,” al-Kubaisi explains how his wife decided to stop wearing the niqab. “My own brothers have not seen it since we were married! I also felt embarrassed as we could not say no to the soldiers who need to see her face for security reasons. My children know how important this tradition is to me, yet we had to abandon it, every few miles. It was then that I asked my wife to take off the face veil and put it in her bag. She has not worn it since.”
The religious rules in Islam can be interpreted in various ways with regard to the niqab, says a widow in her 40s who wished to be known only as Umm Abdullah. “In Islam there is a rule which says that ‘necessity knows no law’,” she explains; basically this means that if you absolutely have to, you can break a religious ruling – for example, if you starving to death and the only food around is pork, you can eat and you will not be considered to have sinned. “I deal with reality according to this rule,” explains the woman who has worn a niqab for ten years and who does not plan to give it up. “We need to cooperate with the security forces in these troubled times. But I will continue to wear the niqab despite any harassment it causes.”
“I work in the fashion business and every week I have to travel between Baghdad and Kirkuk. There are a lot of checkpoints on the way and at the main ones I am usually asked to go to the women’s area to be searched,” Umm Abdullah notes. “However this is never a problem and I do not feel harassed.”
“When I see a woman wearing a niqab get in the car, I do feel a little bad,” admits Mustafa al-Dulaimi, a Baghdad taxi driver. “Because I know the trip will take longer because of tougher security. Niqabs have a negative impact on my work. So I usually try and convince the female passenger to remove her full face veil so we can just drive through. But they usually refuse.”
Having said that al-Dulaimi says that some families have figured out how to make the best of the situation. “The women in their family who wear a niqab sit next to the window. When they are asked to remove the veil [at a checkpoint], they do it. But only those who must, get to see their unveiled faces,” he explains.