BAGHDAD, Iraq – Umm Doha cuts hair and waxes eyebrows in secret from her living room because making women look pretty can get a person killed in her Sunni-dominated Baghdad neighborhood.
Hardline Muslim extremists who believe it is sinful for women to appear beautiful in public have forced many beauticians to move their trade underground.
Sunni and Shiite militants began blowing up salons roughly two years ago. They killed several stylists and bullied others into putting down their scissors and makeup brushes for good, all in an effort to stamp out what they view as the corrupting spread of Western culture.
Besides beauty salons, militants have also targeted liquor stores, barber shops and Christian churches.
In the past year, most beauty salons in the Shiite-dominated southern city of Basra went underground, as they did in the Sunni-controlled neighborhood of Dora in west Baghdad.
To those outside of Iraq, the prospect of being killed just for frequenting a hair salon might seem a convincing reason not to go. But despite being targeted by militants, stylists say women here still want to look good — and stylish. Refusing to get a haircut or having their makeup done would be giving in to the violence and despair surrounding them.
“See this salon?” said the stylist Kifah, as she deftly lopped off a woman’s dark hair into smart layers in her east Baghdad establishment. “It’s never been empty, not through the Iraq-Iran war, the Gulf war or this war. Women are women, they always want to look good.”
Despite her bravado, Kifah, like all the hairdressers interviewed, asked that her full name not be used because she feared retaliation by extremists.
The latest attack on a salon was Dec. 13, in the city of Mosul northwest of the capital. Gunmen stormed the home of a woman who was running a beauty parlor out of one room. They killed her.
Last year, extremists blew up 42-year-old Umm Doha’s beauty parlor in west Baghdad after she did not heed their warnings to close shop.
“They didn’t want a ladies salon there,” she said. Two other salons were also blown up.
Umm Doha said hardline Muslims were offended by the sight of freshly made-up women leaving her salon, including brides heading to their weddings — even though they were conservatively veiled while outside.
Days after her small shop was destroyed, she converted a room in her home into an underground salon. She said she had no choice: Her husband’s low-paying clerk’s job does not pay enough to keep food on the table for their three children.
It isn’t known how many secret salons exist in Iraq, but many women bullied out of their shops work on customers at home. Such an arrangement cuts into profits because the beauticians will deal only with women they already know.
Umm Doha said she has recently been earning only about $200 a month. The brides are the real salon money-spinners: They must be fully waxed, eyebrows shaped, have a fancy hairstyle and a makeover — all for about $65. Umm Doha now sees just two or three brides a month instead of every week.
While danger is rife for beauticians, those plying their trade in areas that have been secured by Iraqi and U.S. troops, or controlled by Sunni tribal groups opposed to al-Qaida in Iraq, seem to have more latitude to work.
A few roads down from Umm Nour’s place, the hairdresser Shams runs a salon in an area protected by a checkpoint separating her part of the neighborhood from the extremists who have forced her colleague into hiding. “I’ve been here for four years and I’ve never been threatened,” Shams said.
Across town in a Shiite neighborhood in east Baghdad, Kifah’s salon sits wedged between a mechanic’s shop and a shuttered store.
Inside, a cluster of women wait, wet hair wrapped in towels. One woman leans back on a chair as a beautician applies a white paste to her face. Another sits with a plastic cap on her hair, strands pulled out to be lightened. A table next to the window holds the ubiquitous pot of sweet Iraqi tea.
Many of the customers in Kifah’s shop said they were war-weary refugees from Sunni western Baghdad, from Shiite families, or Shiites married into Sunni families who fled into more secure eastern Baghdad.
One of those women lay back in Kifah’s chair. She asked not to be named, fearing identification by the extremists her family had fled.
But the woman said the strife made her want to look her best. She said she could not stop the war, but she could boost her morale by looking good.
Iraq’s violence, she said, was like a person suffering from a high fever. “The fever will break and Iraq will return to normal. But until then, we want to be stylish and look good,” she said.
“Here, we give women hope,” Kifah said. “They feel like women, even during the worst tragedy.”
Kifah’s own niece and nephew have disappeared. Another niece was kidnapped and later found dead, even after Kifah’s family paid a ransom, she said.
Still, her salon must stay open.
“If we give some hope here, it helps us carry on,” she said, dusting off the salon chair to prepare for her next customer.
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