BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 26, 2009 -- All over Baghdad the gradual improvements in security and the near-disappearance of militiamen and al Qaeda members from the streets have reduced the pressure on Iraqi women to cover their heads with a "hijab," or head scarf.
Militants routinely threatened to kill each and every woman who did not dress according to the precepts of sharia law that were put in force in 2007. According to Juliana Dawood, a college teacher who lives in Basra, graffiti on the city walls threatened violence against any woman who did not wear the hijab. Fliers distributed in cities like Basra reinforced the warning.
People in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood in western Baghdad witnessed many assaults on women in 2007. "I saw a group of armed men. [Tthey] grabbed a girl and beat her before a crowd of more than 50 people along with her father for not wearing hijab, and afterward they cut her hair with knives," a man who identified himself as Eman told ABC News. "I was frightened and never left home for nearly a week."
A woman named Ibtisam, a 56-year-old housewife living in Baghdad, said that fear of the militiamen "drove my 23-year-old daughter to wear the head scarf. ... We did it for security."
The Hijab phenomenon, in the eyes of many Iraqis, can be linked to the influence of neighboring Islamic-ruled countries.
Yanar Mohammed, the head of the Iraqi Womens Group, told ABC News the phenomenon was enforced indirectly by "the militants who represent the ideologies of their countries." She added that members of al Qaeda "actually distributed the full hijab worn in Afghanistan and forced women [in Iraq] to wear it. One woman who refused ... was killed the next day."
Facing Militants: Head Scarves and Other Freedoms
Another Iraqi, Ashjan, a 35-year-old working woman who lives in the Al Khadraa neighborhood of western Baghdad, said that after security improved and there were "no more al Qaeda in Iraq members in the streets to threaten us, I stopped wearing the hijab. I feel free now."
Ilham, a teacher in a girls school said, "Even Christian women were frightened by the wrath of militants and wore the head scarf to avoid being targeted."
After 2003, Iraqis say, militants tried to cast a more religious character on the country's secular society in a number of other ways, such as prohibiting young men from wearing short pants or smoking cigarettes in public.
Ahmed, who owns a tobacco store that includes a hubble-bubble, the traditional Iranian water pipe, said he narrowly escaped an armed attack. "I was sitting at my shop in the al Khadraa area and all of sudden two masked armed men broke in and opened fire." The bullets left him wheelchair-bound.
For a time, hubble-bubble smoking pipes were prohibited in Baghdad coffee shops, and weddings and parties became taboo, after Iraqi state television ran a graphic story about a bride who was slaughtered in the province of Diyala because al Qaeda in Iraq deemed her wedding un-Islamic.
Now beauty, bridal and cosmetics shops flouish in areas that were previously hotbeds of violence. Young Iraqi women now wear short skirts and boots without fearing for their lives. After six years, things are slowly getting back to normal, and Iraqis revel in the new freedom of how to live their lives.