Short Sleeves in Iraq 

Defying social pressure to cope with the hardships of the summer heat. 

Short Sleeves in Iraq 

Defying social pressure to cope with the hardships of the summer heat. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray.
Artwork by Mays Al-Saray.
Friday, 14 June, 2024

“Your body is different”. This is the response I used to get from my mother whenever I objected to her preventing me from wearing short-sleeved clothes - while allowing my younger sister to so. 

Years later, in the summer of 2016, it was this self-consciousness that prevented me from wearing a dress that would cool me in the heat of Baghdad. It was a long, easy-to-wear, white cotton dress with blue cross stripes, very light, allowing the air to sneak in. But whenever I wore it, I always fought with the man I loved, as he found it too revealing and said that it accentuated my hips. But how? It was a loose dress that did not show my shape, which made me hate my body even more. 

Women’s Prize for Journalism

Many women in Iraq suffer from similar social pressure dictating what they should wear. I spoke to women from across the country to find out how they coped with the hardships of the summer heat. 

Zainab Nasr, 33, who lives in the Al-Sha’ab area in northeast Baghdad and wears the hijab, said that when she tries to wear breathable summer fabric, she has to wear several layers underneath as it may cling her body. 

“The extra layer may add ‘coverage’, as they say, but I do not know what exactly I am covering. I wear a dress that covers my body and then reinforce it with another. I always wonder why I should cover what is already covered,” she complained. 

In addition to the long-sleeved dresses that women wear - whether unveiled like me or veiled like Nasr - we have to add another layer, meaning extra clothing during the summers when temperatures exceed 50 degrees Celsius. 

We always try to choose light fabrics, or a cotton undershirt. But two layers of garments make us too hot. 

Women are also forbidden from wearing bright colours that help deflect the sun’s rays.  

I was told bright or cheerful colours were “eye-catching”. This is why I still wear dark colours; I lost my passion for bright colours, and, to this day, I am not good at choosing them. 

Nasr has the same problem.  

“Whenever I leave the house, either travelling on public transport, attending a government service department, or going to the market, I wear dark clothes to avoid attracting attention,” she said. 

This is the same across the country. 

Perriane Ahmad, a 30-year-old from Sulaymaniyah, said, “I was standing next to a colleague once and a girl passed by wearing a cheerful, striking colour. He said, ‘What is that colour she is wearing? Doesn’t she have any shame?’” 

Shahd Hussein, 27, from Basra governorate, also said she avoided bright colours so as not to be described as ‘shameless’. Even the layers she wore did not pass muster.  

“One time at university, I wore a white shirt and a sleeveless blouse underneath, during summer,” she recalled. “However, everyone criticised me, saying I must wear a long-sleeved blouse under my shirt.” 

Following Fashion

After the openness brought about by the developments that Iraq witnessed after 2003, women tried to keep up with fashion. This did not necessarily mean wearing revealing clothes, but we still faced much harassment. Some called us “short-sleeved women” because we chose clothes that society considered less conservative, such as skirts that end below the knee. 

“The way I dress is socially acceptable and not revealing, but I avoid going out to any market in Sulaymaniyah in (short-sleeved) clothes to avoid being harassed,” Ahmad said. 

Forty-year-old Hajar Al-Tamimi, an English language teacher in the Falastin Street area in Baghdad, faces the same struggle. 

“I do not consider my clothes revealing,” she continued. “I wear jeans and dresses that fall below the knee. I am not bothered by those who call me a “short-sleeved” woman. However, my late mother considered my clothes socially unacceptable. Whenever I went through her photo album, I always asked her, ‘Why do you comment on the way I dress when you used to wear less conservative clothes, although I dress very modestly compared to the way you used to dress back then?’ 

“’Times have changed,’ she used to reply.” Politics play a huge part in this, she explained. 

“Today, political parties have exploited religion, cultural sensibilities are absent, and ignorance is prevalent in society,” Al-Tamimi continued. “Morals have also changed. My mum’s generation was taught that it was unacceptable to interfere in your neighbour’s life or even look at his daughters. Now, men harass their female cousins in some communities.” 

Sociologist Lahay Abdul-Hussein noted that the 60s and 70s were characterised by modernity and openness. Harassment was not widespread and women were free to choose their clothing. 

Things changed after the Iran-Iraq War due to the high casualties and widespread pressures.  

“Waves of grief and pain greatly affected everyone, including women. Then, we entered the years of [international] sanctions, which were way harsher,” said Abdul-Hussein. 

During the sixties, Intisar Jaber and her generation wore cropped jackets, short skirts and even sleeveless blouses to keep up with fashion. 

“When my daughters see my photos, they always ask me why I used to dress the way I wanted to, while I tell them to wear modest clothes when they go out so that they comply with current conventions,” Jaber said. “That is because times have changed.” 

Jaber was an employee in a government department when the Islamic Faith Campaign began after the Iran-Iraq War. She recalls the decision that forced women to wear long dresses and skirts. 

“Short skirts, trousers and short-sleeved blouses were banned and any violations led to punishment,” she recalled. The mingling of religion and politics after 2003 again had a huge impact. 

“Political Islam and the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran affected our society and imposed restrictions on women in choosing their clothing,” said Ahmad from Sulaymaniyah. “Around two years ago, the Kurdistan Islamic Union held a conference where it forced over 100 minor girls, who did not even understand the meaning of hijab, to wear it.” 

A woman’s family or even strangers feel free to monitor how she dresses in public. 

Attending a religious event in Basra, Shahd made sure to wear a long black dress and a veil over her head – but it only partly covered her hair. This minor transgression led to repercussions.  

“An old man saw me and started shouting in the middle of the street, ‘Don’t you have any shame? Why are you showing your hair? Cover it!’” she recounted. “I do not know what would have happened if my friends were not there, even though I was far from him.” 

A sense of constraint affects women in all of Iraq, regardless of whether they are veiled or unveiled. Hajar, too, had a similar experience. 

“An old woman saw me on the bus wearing a shirt and trousers and told me, ‘Put a shawl or a towel on your head, my girl.’ She embarrassed me in front of everyone,” she said. 

Public Punishment

Sexual harassment has also become common. Nasr recalled how on one hot summer day in Baghdad, “a person on a motorcycle touched my bottom while passing, then he drove off. I could not follow him nor call for help, as the street was empty”. 

Ahmad was also harassed in her hometown of Sulaymaniyah, aged 15, when she was wearing a summer shirt.  

“I was wearing a sleeveless blouse and someone touched my breast in the market.” 

When Al-Tamimi was a student at the University of Mosul, she visited the Sargnar market in town with a friend,who was wearing leggings.  

“Men in the market threw nitric acid on the leggings. Fortunately, my friend only had mild burns,” she said. 

The level of threat may also depend on region, varying between Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, and Kurdistan.  

“My family lives in Hillah and, whenever I go there, I always put a veil in my purse to wear once I arrive,” Al-Tamimi said. 

And everything changes again, outside Iraq. 

“I wear a short dress and remove my veil once I arrive in Kurdistan,” said Hussein from Basra, adding sarcastically that “God only exists in Iraq”. 

Indeed, Hajar’s husband - now her ex - forced her to wear “extremely modest abayas and gloves. He used to say, ‘Do not think that I am liberal because I used to live abroad. I am indeed close-minded,’” she recalled. 

However, she continued, “Once we arrived at Beirut Airport, he used to tell me to remove the veil and wear whatever I want.” 

As for me, I asserted my freedom in all the countries I visited.  

I wore what I was deprived of: short skirts, short-sleeved blouses, trousers, shorts and even a swimsuit. However, we still harbour self-censorship within us, even if we are outside Iraq. 

When I was in the Netherlands in 2019, I liked a jumpsuit. It was very short, and I wished I could wear it, but in the end I bought it for myeight-year-old niece. Still, I suddenly fell in love with my body despite the vast amount of criticism it had received from my family and society. I even realised that my body is not “shameful,” as that ex-boyfriend described it.

This article was first published by Jummar Media.

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