Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Women: Looking Beyond the Veil

Photographs by Jamal Penjweny, September 2008.
By Jamal Penjweny
  • Baghdad: A woman shrouds her daughter in a black abaya in their home, a single room in a bombed-out building used by security forces in Saddam’s time.
    Baghdad: A woman shrouds her daughter in a black abaya in their home, a single room in a bombed-out building used by security forces in Saddam’s time.
  • Najaf: Some Muslim women cover their faces entirely with a niqab.
    Najaf: Some Muslim women cover their faces entirely with a niqab.
  • Ramadi: A female prisoner is permitted to look after her daughter in a jail.
    Ramadi: A female prisoner is permitted to look after her daughter in a jail.
  • Baghdad: Teenage motherhood is common in Iraq, with girls as young as 15 marrying with their guardian or parent’s permission.
    Baghdad: Teenage motherhood is common in Iraq, with girls as young as 15 marrying with their guardian or parent’s permission.
  • Baghdad: A woman in Sadr City, a Shia stronghold in the capital, hides her face behind a picture of Imam Ali, a key figure in Shia Islam.
    Baghdad: A woman in Sadr City, a Shia stronghold in the capital, hides her face behind a picture of Imam Ali, a key figure in Shia Islam.
  • Najaf: Women pose for a group photo outside a shop.
    Najaf: Women pose for a group photo outside a shop.
  • Baghdad: A poor Shia family in an older, traditional-style home in Sadr City.
    Baghdad: A poor Shia family in an older, traditional-style home in Sadr City.
  • Iraqi Kurdistan: A woman enjoys a ride on a roller coaster in the mountains of Rawanduz, outside Erbil.
    Iraqi Kurdistan: A woman enjoys a ride on a roller coaster in the mountains of Rawanduz, outside Erbil.
  • Najaf: Women study Islamic and family law at the Shia School for Islamic Studies.
    Najaf: Women study Islamic and family law at the Shia School for Islamic Studies.
  • Baghdad: Dolls dressed in abayas and niqabs sold in the capital’s markets.
    Baghdad: Dolls dressed in abayas and niqabs sold in the capital’s markets.
  • Najaf: Female pilgrims wait all day to visit the shrine of Imam Ali – but were eventually turned away by the Iraq military.
    Najaf: Female pilgrims wait all day to visit the shrine of Imam Ali – but were eventually turned away by the Iraq military.
  • Baghdad: A rare moment of solitude in Sadr City.
    Baghdad: A rare moment of solitude in Sadr City.

Abayas are floor-length cloaks worn by some Muslim women as a sign of modesty and a statement of religious faith. The garment of choice in many parts of Iraq and throughout the Gulf, abayas help shield women from unwanted attention and protect them from the elements.

In Iraq, most abayas are black cloaks, also known as chadors. They are most popular with Iraqi Shias and older women, but can also been seen on young women, and as far north as Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqis say that more women are wearing abayas and conservative clothing in post-Saddam Iraq, particularly as religious parties gain ground.

Men are taught to respect women who wear abayas, with many refusing to even glance at a cloaked woman. As security has tightened in Iraq, insurgent groups have recruited women to carry out suicide bomb attacks, using their abayas as cover. These cases have been widely covered in the press but are relatively rare.

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