The bustling streets of Basra. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Shahid and Nour al-Rubaie sit on the third floor of one of the largest shopping malls in Basra, waiting for their lunch. The two women might look innocuous to some but for many locals, they are still an interesting sight: Two women, on their own, without a male guardian, out shopping and eating in what is still a fairly conservative southern Iraqi city.
“Today Basra is a very safe place,” Shahid told NIQASH. “There are malls like this that we can walk around. We can wear what we want in here because it is closed and safe,” she added, before explaining that in the recent past she used to dress far more conservatively, for fear of provoking the armed militia members who patrolled the city’s streets.
We have actually realised that women are more careful drivers. They cause fewer accidents and abide by the law.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Basra was a relatively cosmopolitan place. In the 1990s, it started to become more traditional and after 2003, and the US-led invasion of Iraq, Basra – one of Iraq’s biggest cities – became increasingly conservative again, partially due to the competing militias that tried to take control of parts of the city, ostensibly to maintain security. But in recent years that fundamentalist feeling has faded somewhat. Since 2008, the Iraqi government has been disarming the militias and has arrested several of the most prominent leaders.
And as the city has attracted more investment, families who have lived elsewhere have returned to Basra or moved here, and often they have brought less conservative attitudes with them.
The militias who patrolled the cities once put up signs warning local females not wear make-up or go out without a veil on. At local universities, those women who chose not to wear a veil or who wore clothes that strict religious rules said were provocative, were often harassed.
But today there are more unveiled women, more women driving cars in Basra or going shopping without a male family member. There are even primary schools with mixed classes that have been so popular that other investors are founding similar private schools.
Basra women in the 1960s.
“We have issued many more driving licenses to women in the past three years,” says Riyad al-Eidani, a spokesperson for the provincial traffic department. “This is because women now go to work or drive their children to schools. They are also buying their own cars.”
The number of women drivers has increased so much that male drivers are no longer surprised to see a female in charge of a vehicle, al-Eidani adds. “And we have actually realised that women are more careful drivers. They cause fewer accidents and abide by the law.”
There are even female traffic officers now. Basra’s women have also started doing other jobs, without fear of recrimination.
“Today we have many females who can model for us in Basra,” says local fashion designer, Ziad al-Athari, “Ten years ago we could never find anyone to model because of tribal and community restrictions. But today we have many candidates for our shows.”
Iraqi women in conservative areas are often criticised as loose if they do anything – such as modelling, sinigang or acting – that puts them in front of an audience. In Basra, fashion shows could only be staged in well-guarded venues at first but now they’ve become more popular and are often open to the general public.
“As a result of far better security we now see many women in Basra taking up jobs; some even start businesses,” al-Athari explains. “They also benefit from what’s going on in other countries where they can see women working and independent but still respectable.”
The first union of local Iraqi businesswomen was established in Basra in 2011.
Today all of this means everything, and not much at all, to the al-Rubaie sisters in the mall. They’re more interested in relaxing and shopping. After lunch, they set off into the mall, to look at some clothes and trinkets and then afterwards, Shahid drives her sister home.