Umm Haytham, the owner of a beauty salon called ‘Joy’, has been working in the hairdressing profession for nearly ten years and she says she still vividly remembers the day on March 5, 2005 when she found a letter threatening her life on the floor of her salon.
“The envelope contained three bullets and a letter with the seal of the Islamic State of Iraq warning me never to work in the shop again or else my family and I would face death,” Umm Haytham told Niqash, explaining that she gave up work immediately. “Later I learned that similar shops had all received the same message.”
In the years 2005 and 2006 Anbar province was the most violent in all of Iraq with al-Qaeda and other Islamic organizations imposing their will upon the local people. Across the province, practices deemed to be against the tenets of Islamic law were compelled to stop by force. Beauty salons, television stores, gynaecologists, clothes shops, and music and movies stalls were all forced to shut.
But since mid-2007, with the emergence of tribal forces known as the awakening movement and their defeat al-Qaeda, a level of normality has returned to the province and many shops forced to close have reopened.
“At first I returned to work but limited myself to secretly working for relatives and friends. When my heart was at ease after the return of security I reopened the shop at the beginning of the year," said Umm Haytham.
Recently, the trend of beauty salons reopening has increased significantly and people say that the number of salons now even exceeds that of 2003.
Observers say that whereas the profession was once dominated by Christian women, many Muslim women are today opening up their own salons.
According to Mahira Abdul Jalil, head of a women’s rights organization called ‘The Promise’, the increase in the number of widows and displaced women living in the province, explains this trend.
“Most of the new stores are run by women displaced from Baghdad, who use a room in their rented home in order to earn a living,” said Abdul Jalil. “There are also many widows in need of work.”
Umm Omar, a 37 year old widow from Baghdad, is one such woman. Forced to fend for herself after the murder of her husband three years ago, Umm Omar took a free training course offered by a local civil society organization.
“I then started to learn more from special beauty programs on satellite [television] channels and then opened a small salon in my home and now I constantly have clients,” she said.
The organization that runs the training courses in Ramadi, the Life Association for Widows and Orphans, told Niqash that they have seen a surge in interest in their course.
“There is great interest today from widows wishing to learn the profession and earn a living from it and we have continuous courses to teach the art of hair dressing, makeup and hair removal," explained Ibtisam Abdullah, President of the organization.
"The number of graduates exceeds sixty each year and a majority of them establish their own beauty shops later or engage in the profession at home," she said.
For her part Umm Haytham says that the profession has changed considerably since she was forced to abandon it. Today new technology is widely available and prices have increased significantly.
"The biggest amount I used to receive for making up a bride was about 30 dollars,” she said. “Today... I won’t make up a bride for less than 100 dollars.”