[Note: Readers interested in an investigation of Basra politics--in particular, the push toward federalism, or de-centralization--might want to check out my piece in June 28th's Christian Science Monitor. Hope you enjoy.]
What's one of the main source of the problems afflicting Basra these days? Pull up a chair, habibitie, and I'll tell you...
...so there we are, Layla and I, chatting one recent afternoon in the funduk coffee shop with Dr. Basma, a history professor at Basra U. Over cups of chai, the conversation meanders from the Battle of the Camel to the Dutch East India Company and the Sublime Porte to today's religious conservatism among Basma's students. Outside, the day is hot and dry enough to dehydrate a sponge, overriding the funduk a/c system until, growing uncomfortable, Layla divests her abiya to carry on the interview in a scarf, long sleeved blouse and blue jean flairs. All perfectly modest, of course, nothing like the T&A jigee-jiggling on the Arab music videos blasting from the television behind us.
In walks a man, who plants himself in front of the TV. Even as Dr. Basma recounts how increasing numbers of students are shrouding themselves in hejab, this worthy sits transfixed by the televised bevy of dark-eyed houri prancing and dancing and rotating their heads until their long, thick, black-as-the -Kaaba tresses spin like propellor blades. The irony is not lost at our table, although we don't mention it.
The man, however, feels no such discretion: soon, instead of Lebanese teens in adornment-revealing half-cut tees and crotch-level jeans, he's staring at us--staring with the same blank, dull, malevolently stupid glare I've encountered so often in this country. I tense; Layla, sensitive by now to my misplaced gallantry, cautions, "I know, I know, just ignore him..." while Dr. Basma talks gamely on, trying to blot the intrusive gaze from her consciousness as well.
But I can't restrain myself, it's hackle-raising, this constant stare. "Eindak mooshkelah?" I snap, ("You have a problem?"), the man starts, garbles something in Arabic, looks back to the TV for moment--then turns to glare at us once more. By now I'm thinking, What would happen if I punched this guy? when fortunately, Layla leaps up, murmurs with exasperation, "It's me, it's me..." and proceeds to re-abiya herself. Muslim dignity restored, the man returns to oggling the video vixens in their chadorless abandon, hair, limbs, hips moving with the freedom Iraqi women experience only in their dreams.
Ah yes, I think, the tanker truck men all over again, the same gutfull of squelched anger shot through with helplessness and frustration. And once more, I'm reminded that the real agents of Iraq's fate are not media-friendly issues like the "insurgency" or the "Occupation" or even the upcoming constitutional convention--but rather subtle, ephemeral, non-documentable social norms and cutoms that permeate and regulate the lives of nearly every person in this country--especially females. I've railed about this topic before, but it never ceases to astonish me, the ways in which Iraqi men subjugate and control their women with their obsessions on "reputation," "honor" and that all-purpose cudgel, "proper Muslim behavior."
Men, of course, maintain no such standards of conduct: I could give a hundred examples; let these two suffice. Recently, Layla contacted a member of one of Iraq's major Shiite religious parties, requesting an interview. She and I actually spoke with this man in February, 2004, and athough they haven't met since, he told Layla on the phone that he remembered her. More than remembered her, actually: he's been thinking of her ever since--her face, her eyes, even the clothes she was wearing that day. He then asked her to marry him. Right there, on the phone! And not once, but twice.. (I was sitting next to her in the hotel lobby when she held this conversation, not knowing why she suddenly seemed to turn naueous) This bastion of Muslim propriety and Koranic teachings even sweetened his proposal by promising her a position on the party's "security forces"--which is tantamount to offerng a civil rights activist a job with the Klan. Do I even need to say it? She refused.
About two weeks ago, we interviewed a businessman sheikh--a heavy-set guy with a fleshy face who radiated a kind of sleazy prosperity. At the end of our conversation--translated by Layla--the sheikh told us he had many other ideas and thoughts he wanted to share. This sounded good, and as we left his house, I asked Layla to set up another appointment with him. She refused. Wouldn't say why. This angered me, we had words, she stormed off--and it was only a few days later that she told me what had occured. Seems the oh-so-respectable sheikh had offered during the interview to make her his second wife (he already had one), showering upon her promises of a car, a house, money. In Arabic, of course, as if I was not present in the room. Layla had translated his comments for me, editing out the marriage proposal without missing a beat--you really have to hand it to her.
The point is, polygamy and "temporary marriages" are legal here, meaning that any single woman is subject to the advances of any man, married or not. Even if they aren't bold enough to confess their ardor in conversation, the hope, or fantasy, burns in their minds and fills the eyes with a queasy leer. Woman back home who complain about the "male gaze" have no idea how bad it can get.
Adding hypocrisy to chauvenism, the religious parties take the opposite tact in public, policing female behavior with a vigor that makes the Puritans look like jitter-bugging zoot-suiters. Yesterday, I interviewed a 22 year-old Psych grad from Basra University. She told me how, as they entered the campus each morning, she and other female students had to pass through a gauntlet of religious militiamen "hired" by the administration for "protection." The gunsels examined each woman's hejab--no showing of hair, ladies--and the length of their abiyas, staring into their faces for signs of make-up. (I've also learned that similar guards at a college in Amarra, north of Basra, scrutinize women's feet to insure they are wearing black socks--it's an Iranian thing--inducing many students to paint their feet and ankles black.) Anyone failing the Islamic Dignity test is sent home, with a stern rebuke to her parents for allowing their daughter to venture out in such a degraded state.
A few months ago, the student continued, a young man and woman were ambling down a narrow path at the university when black-shirted militiamen accosted them, accusing the couple of "unIslamic behavior." When they protested their innocence, the brave warriors of Allah began beating the woman; when the man tried to defend her, they knocked him to the ground, punching and kicking him into submission. (Of course, those of us who follow the news remember how Moqtada al-Sadr's men last March attacked a student picnic, because the young men were brazenly intermingling with young women, many of whom were not wearing hejab!)
I asked the student how this oppression made her feel, and she grimaced and curled her fingers into two trembling talons. "It burns inside," she added. "We are not free to dress or act as we like. Meanwhile, the religious parties have banned from our lives music, social interaction, relaxation. I am depressed all the time." I then asked her if she ever had "fun" in Basra; her face took on a blank, faraway look. "No," she whispered, looking at her hands folded in her lap. "I see on television the lives people live in America. And I feel my years are being wasted." Lisa, this is a 22 year old woman in the very bloom of youth!
But this is what Basra has become in the aftermath of the elections. These are the unwritten, unlegislated and unchallengeable "social" and "religious" norms that have an iron grip on the city. And yet back home, you hardy find a public discussion or even acknowledgement of these shackles on human behavior--the Right is too busy congratulating itself on the progress of Iraqi democracy and the Left is obsessed with multimcultural relativism and discrediting Bush. Meanwhile, Bedouin customs and religious edicts--in short, tribal Islam--is grinding the hearts and souls and futures of thousands of Basran women into the desert sand. All they can do is curl their hands into talons, burn inside and wait for the day of their true liberation.
Yours from the land of leering cleric and salacious sheikh.