When she was a child in Najaf, Rua Zuhair thought that all women, all around the world, wore a veil over their hair. Her mother simply had her wear it from when she was a young girl and it was only later on that she realized this wasn’t true.
Zuhair, now a 32-year-old journalist living in Baghdad, was raised in a wealthy and conservative family in the southern city of Najaf. Her family was educated and liberal-leaning but Najaf itself is well known as a centre of religious learning and therefore more conservative – covering one’s hair was standard practice for females living here. After 2003, and the end of the somewhat more secular regime headed by Saddam Hussein, Najaf society became even more conservative. It was no longer enough for women to simply wear an abaya, the loose robe-like garment worn over the top of other clothes. Now, females also had to wear a headscarf under their abaya and they were also not allowed to show their feet. Thick socks became obligatory and high heels were disallowed, along with wearing nail polish and singing.
She wondered whether the world would feel different once she left the house with her hair uncovered.
Somehow though, Zuhair, an avid reader as a teenager, who saved her pocket money to buy books and magazines, always questioned the idea.
After graduating high school, Zuhair was accepted into Baghdad University’s journalism school but she ended up in Najaf, studying literature instead, because her father told her she could either study close by her home, or not at all.
“So I gave in, simply so that I could continue my education,” she explains. When not at university, she helped look after her brothers and sisters and managed her father’s car parts workshop. Then, after she completed her university studies, she found a job as a reporter at a local TV channel. However conservative relatives who were offended at a female relative in the workplace in any function, asked her father to stop her. Under pressure from their family, Zuhair gave up her first job.
However she didn’t give up on writing and continued to send her poetry and stories to local newspapers and magazines. Her husband-to-be was an editor at one of the publications and read her poems as she submitted them. This is how the couple met, eventually married, and then moved to Baghdad.
It was here that Zuhair was once again able to take up her chosen profession in the media – today she works for the communications authority in Baghdad and has won many prizes for her work. Moving to the big city also allowed her another freedom: To take off the veil she had worn since she was very small, but had always questioned.
“I styled my hair carefully and looked at myself in the mirror so many times before I finally felt ready to leave the house without a veil,” she recalls the moment. “Then I did it.”
She says she wondered whether the world would feel different once she left the house with her hair uncovered. “I felt a sort of freedom as the wind blew it around,” she says. “But really I was in the middle of Baghdad, it’s a huge city and people didn’t notice me at all. It was just how I felt - different inside.”
Zuhair argues that taking off her veil wasn’t really a rebellion against her family, more against social mores and traditions that she felt stifled women. In fact, she notes, her parents didn’t even object.
“Objections came from other relatives and from some other members of society,” she recounts. “But my husband always supported my decision and he even thought it would be nice if I cut my hair fashionably short. So I did and when I did, I gave the braided hair to my father.”
Zuhair hasn’t said farewell to the veil forever though; when she returns to Najaf with her two children to visit family, she puts it back on again.