A young Iraqi woman has the final touches done to her hair at a salon in central Baghdad. Many Iraqi women say the return of Western-style fashions is a sign of returning security and freedom after years of war and sectarian tensions.
The hot fashion items for this season? Short skirts, tight jeans with long boots, and short jackets for cold days.
That may not sound exceptional, or even very trendy, but this is the fashion forecast from Baghdad, where the climate for more revealing women's wear has been steadily improving. Many Iraqi women say it is a sign of returning security and freedom after years of war and sectarian tensions.
The new look can be found at the clothing shop of Ali Mohammed, a 25-year-old entrepreneur whose customers are young women, many of them college students. Mohammed boasts that his fashion line is for the modern Iraqi woman, not what he deprecatingly calls "classic designs for classic ladies."
Since the 2003 invasion, the classic look for Baghdad ladies — at least on the street — has been hijab, the Islamic expression of modesty that requires a woman to cover her shape and her hair.
Contestants line up for the Miss Hunt Club pageant at Baghdad's exclusive gathering spot. At the height of Iraq's sectarian violence, being covered up was a matter of life and death. But in some places now, women in Baghdad can wear trendy fashions.
Contestants line up for the Miss Hunt Club pageant at Baghdad's exclusive gathering spot. At the height of Iraq's sectarian violence, being covered up was a matter of life and death. But in some places now, women in Baghdad can wear trendy fashions. Corey Flintoff/NPR
Even if an Iraqi woman had a little black dress, it would have been covered by a big black abaya, the billowing garment that shrouds a woman from head to foot.
At the height of Iraq's sectarian violence, being covered up was a matter of life and death.
Ali says it was common to hear of women being kidnapped and killed for not wearing hijab, and his customers were scared.
In fact, it's still the case that far more Baghdad women at least wear a headscarf on the streets, rather than show their hair.
But at social venues, the times are changing.
One place to see it is Baghdad's Hunt Club, in what foreign correspondents never fail to describe as the city's "trendy" or "upscale" Mansoor district. It is an exclusive gathering spot for Iraq's see-and-be-seen crowd dating from the era of Saddam Hussein's rule.
At the Miss Hunt Club pageant held recently, a big crowd cheered on more than a dozen contestants, only one of whom was wearing a headscarf.
Most of the others wore the sort of clothing that Mohammed sells in his shop — outfits in varying degrees of snugness and hemlines in the higher latitudes. Some women were propped on stiletto heels that would topple a runway model in Milan.
The tiara in the Hunt Club pageant went to Yasameen Kanaan, a high school senior wearing low-rise jeans.
Contestant Samaa Sameer, 18, poses with her mother during the Miss Hunt Club pageant.
Contestant Samaa Sameer, 18, poses with her mother during the Miss Hunt Club pageant. Corey Flintoff/NPR
Contestant Samaa Sameer, 18, was eliminated before the final round, but she says the pageant was a good way to show her confidence. Her mother, who wears a headscarf, beamed.
Sameer says she can't wear trendy clothes everywhere in Baghdad, but at social clubs like this, it's just the thing. She says it may take at least five years before Western clothes for women are common on city streets.
Rana Mohammed runs a hair salon where women read fashion magazines and discuss the latest trends.
The 25-year-old proprietor says she was forced to wear hijab for years, because the danger from Islamist fanatics was just too great.
Ali Mohammed says the new trend is not really about fashion, but freedom. Iraqi women ought to be free to wear whatever they like. They should be free to choose hijab if they wish, or they ought to be able to express themselves with Western clothing.
For the customers at Ali Mohammed's clothing store, the choice is clear: What to wear this season? Ali says it is absolutely not hijab.