Middle East

In Baghdad walls come down, ushering freedom in

Baghdad has been undergoing major changes since the “Islamic State” group was removed from Iraq, and safety returned to the city of eight million. Most of the T-walls erected over the past decade to keep both public and private buildings safe have now been pulled down to reveal parks and green zones. In a major development, the Green Zone housing the parliament, ministries and embassies, which was formerly secured behind fences, walls and checkpoints, was recently opened up to all traffic.

As part of this changing environment, Baghdad has seen the opening of its first women’s café, where women can meet without males to accompany them and without wearing the scarf and long abaya that have become so common on the streets. These are, of course, the first things young women remove on entering La Femme café.

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“Fathers do not want their daughters going to cafés where men smoke water pipes,” says Femme’s owner Adra Adel-Abid, 47, describing the situation in many public places in Iraq. She provides the popular nargileh, as the water pipes are called, too, but hers are prepared by a woman, while her daughter, Mays, 20, serves an alcohol-free champagne cocktail and other drinks and snacks.

Even if they have to employ a guard, as is common in public places in Iraq, she will find a female one, says Adel-Abid. “Some men are angry that they are not welcome, and some say we secretly sell alcohol and drugs.” But although Femme is located in a high-rise building with a men’s gym and restaurants and only one elevator, no men have ventured inside this female sanctuary to date.

Adel-Abid’s clientele is mostly women from the middle and upper classes. For her young customers, she organizes women-only parties for birthdays, engagement and graduations. The older generation prefers to drink a coffee and listen to the old Iraqi singers favored by Femme’s sound system.

Five years ago, she would not have been able to open the café, Adel-Abid says. “People were afraid. There is more openness now.” Which means women can now run businesses. In addition to Femme, she also set up a venture to collect leftovers from restaurants and feed some of the city’s 190,000 poor and displaced persons. Although she has had to call a temporary halt to this activity for lack of money, she is currently looking for wealthy Baghdadis to sponsor her.

Shifting cultural norms

Adel-Abid is not the only female entrepreneur in Baghdad. With “Islamic State” out of the picture, and as a result of the current political stability, Iraqi women are demanding their share of the city’s public space. In Mansour, the neighborhood where Femme is located, most cafés and restaurants are now mixed, with women smoking water pipes too.

The winds of change have also reached the streets, where women dress more colorfully, instead of hiding behind black veils. The process extends to the headscarf, which is slowly losing ground with young women; like Mays, they prefer to wears jeans and no scarf.

The same goes for Merry al-Khafaji, who recently tied the knot with Mustafa al-Ani. In her twenties, like her new husband, whom she has joined for a water pipe in a popular Baghdad garden, she arrives with her dark hair flowing freely and wearing a green T-shirt with jeans.

Their marriage is another sign of the changing atmosphere in Baghdad. The fact that he is Sunni and she Shiite would have led to huge problems as recently as a couple of years ago. But since the Iraqis united to cast out ‘Islamic State,” mixed marriages have made a comeback in the country; in fact, among the young in Baghdad, they have even become ‘the new normal.’

Read more: Iraq’s Mosul celebrates cultural comeback

Before the fall of Saddam in 2003, it was normal for Iraqis to marry freely between sects and religions. But the new regime divided the country by belief, and when the Shiite majority came to power, it led to a civil war between the sects, the rise of radical Islam and, ultimately, “Islamic State.” As a result, parents preferred their children to marry within their own group. “But after ISIS, many Iraqis decided they wanted to leave that black era behind them and return to the time before the divisions,” says the young couple.

Traditionally, parents choose their children’s partners, but they met at the telecoms firm where they work. They are not alone — many young people now meet at work, as well as during study or workshops.

Social media brings change

Social media has also had a major impact, they point out, by providing young people with a new way to make new friends in conservative Iraqi society. And since most people do not use their family names — which often reveals their sect — on social media, people don’t actually know what religion their new friends belong to. By the time they find out, love may have blossomed.

Social media have also encouraged young people to be more critical, Al-Ani points out. “Both Sunni and Shiite young people have grown critical of the role played by the religious political parties and by religion in our society.” But even though mixed marriages “are very normal now” in Baghdad, as he says, they are less common in the more conservative and segregated regions outside the capital.

The marriage system is itself another impediment. A married couple needs to choose under which religion they want their marriage registered, as the different sects each have their own heritage and divorce laws. Though the Shiite divorce laws are slightly better for women, the couple opted for Sunni laws. “The lady in the court advised against it,” says Al-Khafaji, “but I really don’t care.” She is done with all the segregation, she implies.

Hanaa Edwar, a respected activist who heads the Amal Association in Iraq, points to the improved security situation post-“Islamic State” as the main driver behind the change. “It’s the psychological effect of all those walls being removed. Young women tell themselves that it’s okay now, that they can live normally again. They drop the scarf and play a more active role in society. And their families are all right with that.”

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Parents understand that their children need more freedom, she says, which has led to mixed groups of young men and women in cafés, but also to the workshops her organization stages becoming more mixed.

“Parents allow their daughters to travel alone to Basra or Irbil now.” Before they would always have been accompanied by their father or a brother. “During the battle against ISIS, we saw young men and women teaming up to support civilians,” she points out. These new developments also stem from the way “Islamic State” restricted the freedoms enjoyed by the young.

Women are now reclaiming public space.

“Women are acting in the theaters again, which had become almost unheard of. They are speaking in public — for instance against forced marriages. They are breaking down the walls, and even starting to shake the tribal traditions.”

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