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From: Marcela Gaviria · Re: Kufa · Date: Dec. 5, 2003

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Iraq's Peoples and Politics
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Introduction: A Long Road

We talk about women in Islam and women in the West while Sadr preaches.

It's raining lightly outside Al Kufa Mosque, one of the holiest shrines in all of Iraq and a sacred site for all Shia Muslims from Iran to Afghanistan. It was here that Imam Ali was killed in the seventh century. And it is here where 14 centuries later Moqtada al-Sadr, a young cleric with a fierce following, now speaks against the American occupation every Friday at midday prayers.

Sadr has a reputation for being a populist loudmouth with wide appeal among the poor and disenfranchised. Some estimate that up to 60 percent of the Shias of Iraq support him. But Sadr is a controversial figure who threatens to split the Shia community between radicals and moderates. We've come to see why he appeals to so many.

Despite the foul weather, Kufa is log-jammed with Shia pilgrims who have crossed into Iraq from neighboring Iran. The traffic is intense. Huge buses unload Iranian tourists in front of newly built hotels with names like "Tourist Hotel," "Kufa Palace," and "Dar a Salaam Hotel." Every few blocks a new hotel is under construction. I am told the demand for hotel rooms is so high that there were Iranian pilgrims sleeping on the muddy streets of Kufa the night before Juma'a, or holy Friday.

We arrive at the mosque close to 10 a.m. [Name removed], the fourth translator we've hired on this trip, has secured permission for us to film inside the mosque, but she cannot convince Sadr's security detail to let her in to translate the midday prayers. "Only the men," they tell her. They motion for Scott and Martin to move inside and for us to move away from the door. I'm not sure what [our translator] tells the guards, but it is clear that her appeals to enter the men's section of the mosque will not be considered. We are shooed away from the door and told that it is inappropriate for women even to stand at that entrance.

I am, however, appropriately dressed -- fully cloaked in a black abaya, with the hejab snuggly secured around my head. The only skin I'm showing is that of my hands and face. Even my earlobes are hidden thanks to the help of a safety pin. [Our translator] keeps pulling the black veil further toward my eyebrows. "Your hair is showing," she scolds me. "It's haram [forbidden] to show your hair. Especially here." I am slightly annoyed.

We drag our black cloaks through the muddy sidewalk circling the mosque. Vendors have hogged most of the space with their carts and stalls. Mostly they sell big posters with an illustration of Imam Ali, an imaginary rendition of a dashing young man with dreamy brown eyes and green turban, cassettes of Sadr's speeches, and new and used copies of the Koran. But there are also signs of Iraq's burgeoning free trade: bananas from Colombia and Ecuador, coffee pots from Turkey, padded bras from China, and silky bright pink pajamas manufactured in Taiwan. The pajamas seem to be the best-selling items among the Iranian men, who must be taking them home to their wives and sisters. The bananas, an unaffordable luxury item before the war, are also selling like hot bread.

Women covered in the traditional abaya and hejab walk through the market in Najaf, Iraq. (Photo by Scott Anger)

As [our translator] and I walk toward the back of the mosque looking for the women's entrance, several men walk toward me and practically poke me in the forehead with their index fingers. It's my blonde bangs that keep slipping from beneath the head scarf.

"Don't take it personally," [our translator] says. "They do this to all women."

By the time we arrive at the women's entrance, our black abayas are muddied from the walk. Hundreds of other black-cloaked women are also waiting to get into the mosque in time for Sadr's sermon. We are jostled through a narrow passageway that separates men from women, and then prodded like cattle for inspection through a divider made out of rudimentary wire and what looks like an old gate.

I feel suffocated by the smell of sweat and cardamom emanating from all the black cloaks pressed together. It feels like a stampede, but [our translator] holds on to me hard and pulls me past a hanging white blanket. [Our translator] tells two women standing guard that I am a foreign journalist, but instead of getting preferential treatment I am pulled aside and frisked by three women simultaneously. They shove their hands up and down my abaya as if I were a drug runner being strip-searched at an airport. I am very annoyed.

Past the security guards there is a courtyard caked with mud and littered with shoes. If the architecture is beautiful, I do not notice. I am too preoccupied by the mud and the crowds. [Our translator] takes me to the bathroom to wash before praying. Inside there are throngs of women splashing water on their faces, bathing their arms, and fiddling with their black nylons and plastic flip flops. They must also wash their feet before entering the mosque. Despite the cleansing ritual, I am depressed by the filth, the mud, and the smell.

We make our way to the shrine, take off our shoes, and walk through a soggy carpet into a large oblong room covered in a mosaic of mirrors. There is little space to pray. Old and young, crowded side by side, kneel and stand at irregular cycles. The sound of children crying echoes throughout. I look at the women and wonder how this could be a spiritual experience for anyone. And yet I realize that for so many, this space is a place of great beauty, next to the poverty of their own homes.

I can hear Sadr rambling through the loudspeaker in Arabic, but it is muffled, and [our translator] is busy praying and unable to translate. Perhaps sensing my unease, she rushes through her prayers. Before long, [our translator] pulls me back to the mosque's inner courtyard, and we wait for Martin and Scott to reappear.

"Don't you feel better wearing an abaya?" asks [our translator] when we step out. "I find it comforting, almost like hiding from the world."

I feel completely the opposite. The loose-fitting abaya is almost like a straight jacket. I feel like an anonymous ghost cloaked in a drab black curtain. I miss the individuality that Western clothing affords. But I don't want to contradict [our translator].

I tell her, "I don't mind the abaya so much as the hejab. But I guess I'm not even sure I understand the purpose. I almost feel that it draws more attention to my face. It's too harsh."

"I think you would find many good things in wearing the hejab. It's important. Men are weak and they cannot concentrate on their prayers if you show your hair," [our translator] tells me. "We should also do it in solidarity for all the less beautiful women. If you don't cover ... men will be tempted by your beauty. Many marriages would fail."

I've heard all the reasons that women should cover, but this one is new to me -- the idea that the hejab would prevent adultery. I am skeptical. I tell [our translator] that even if the hejab prevents adultery, it does not prevent polygamy. "For me, adultery and polygamy are just as bad. And yet for you, it is acceptable for a man to have several wives."

"If a man cheats on his wife, that is cruel," [our translator] explains. "But if he takes on a second wife, or a third one, he is simply doing that because the first wife is not providing him with everything he needs. He should marry another wife as long as he continues to provide for the first wife."

I like [our translator] enormously. She is honest and kind-hearted. She speaks her mind, unafraid to voice her opinions. She is educated and inquisitive. But standing in that courtyard, I find her academic. She believes the world would be perfect if we all followed the Koran to the letter.

"Don't you think women in the West are enslaved by trying to look good?" [our translator] asks me. "Wearing the hejab liberates us from that. We are loved by our husbands if we are good wives and good Muslims, not if we are beautiful."

I tell [our translator] I wish it were that simple.

We talk about women in Islam and women in the West while Sadr preaches. [Our translator] has not managed to convince me of much, and I don't think I have made much headway, either. Martin and Scott finally emerge from the mosque to find the two of us standing in the light rain.

[Editor's Note: The name of the translator has been removed from this dispatch for security purposes.]


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posted february 12, 2004

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