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Young Iraqis face religious fashion crackdown

Monday, September 03, 2012 | 6:57 AM    

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — For much of Iraq's youth, sporting blingy makeup, slicked-up hair and skintight jeans is just part of living the teenage dream. But for their elders, it's a nightmare.

A new culture rift is emerging in Iraq, as young women replace shapeless cover-ups with ankle-baring skirts and tight blouses, while men strut around in revealing slacks and spiky haircuts. The relatively skimpy styles have prompted Islamic clerics in at least two Iraqi cities to mobilize local security guards as a "fashion police" in the name of protecting religious values.

"I see the way (older people) look at me — they don't like it," said Mayada Hamid, 32, wearing a pink leopard-print headscarf with jeans, a blue blouse and lots of sparkly eyeliner yesterday while shopping at the famous gold market in the northern Baghdad neighbourhood of Kazimiyah.

She rolled her eyes. "It's just suppression." So far, though, there are no reports of the police actually taking action.

This is a conflict playing out across the Arab world, where conservative Islamic societies grapple with the effects of Western influence, especially the most obvious — the way their young choose to dress.

The violations of old Iraqi norms have grown especially egregious, religious officials say, since the August 20 end of Ramadan, Islam's holy month. In the last two weeks, posters and banners have been hanging along the streets of Kazimiyah, sternly reminding women to wear an abaya — a long, loose black cloak that covers the body from shoulders to feet.

A similar warning came from Diwaniyah, a Shiite city about 130 kilometres (80 miles) south of the capital, where some posters have painted a red X over pictures of women wearing pants. Other banners praise women who keep their hair fully covered beneath a headscarf.

Religious officials speculate young Iraqis got carried away in celebrating the end of Ramadan and now need to be reined in.

"We support personal freedoms, but there are places that have a special status," said Sheik Mazin Saadi, a Shiite cleric from Kazimiyah, home to the double gold-domed shrine that is one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites.

He said the area's residents lobbied Baghdad's local government to ban unveiled women from walking around the neighbourhood, including its sprawling open-air market that attracts people from across Iraq.

"The women started to follow to this order," Saadi said.

Government leaders in Baghdad say they've issued no such ban and ordered some of the warning posters removed. The rule "is only for the female visitors who go inside the shrine itself," said Sabar al-Saadi, chairman of the Baghdad provincial council's legal committee. "We think that wearing a veil for women in Iraq is a personal decision."

Muslim women generally wear headscarves or veils in public out of modesty, and female worshippers are required to wear an abaya or other loose robes in shrines and mosques.

But over the last several years, following the 2003 US-led invasion and the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, Western styles have crept into Iraq's fashion palate. Form-fitting clothing, stylish shoes and men's edgy hairstyles are commonly seen on the street. Some younger women have even begun to forgo the hijab, or headscarf.

Their parents — and their parents' parents — fear Western influence will drown out Iraq's centuries of culture and respect for religion.

"We as Iraqis do not respect our traditions," said Fadhil Jawad, 65, a gold seller near the Kazimiyah shrine. He estimated his profits have dropped by 10 percent in the last two weeks since authorities posted warnings about improper dress codes at the entrance to the market. He called the financial loss worth the lesson being imposed.

"Legs can be seen, there are low-cut shirts," Jawad lamented. "And all, very, very tight. I think these Iraqis who are wearing these things have come back from Syria, Dubai and Egypt. They probably spent too much time in nightclubs. The families in Kazimiyah are conservative. These young people — nobody can control them. They should be given freedoms, but they should know their limits."

Several young adults strolling the Kazimiyah gold market yesterday accused the religious class of trying to pull Iraq back to the dark ages, a sentiment that human rights activist Hana Adwar echoed.

"It is an aggression on the rights of not only religious minorities, but also on secular Muslim women who do not want to wear veils," said Adwar, head of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Hope Association.

Men, too, have been targeted in the fashion flap: Edgy haircuts, tattoos and body piercings have angered religious authorities. But Hassan Mahdi, 22, said he does not care.

"No, hell no, nobody can tell me what to do," said Mahdi, sporting a tight turquoise Adidas tracksuit and a trendy moptop hairdo at the Kazimiyah market.

So far, it appears, the fashion police have stopped short of taking any real steps. Guards at two security checkpoints in Kazimiyah said they have not been ordered to stop daring dressers from entering the market, and 17-year-old Ali Sayeed Abdullah said his slicked-up pompadour didn't prevent him from going into the shrine. "Nobody objected," he said. "But if there is a ban on this, I will change it," referring to his hairstyle.

But some women have been handed tissues at Kazimiyah checkpoints and told to wipe off their makeup before entering the market, said resident Hakima Mahdi, 59.

"This is very good," she said, smiling broadly, sheathed in a black cloak with an extra abaya covering her head. "It's respect to the imam, respect to this holy place."

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