Shiites bring rigid piety to Iraq's south
In Basra these days, it's not uncommon to see armed men from Shiite religious groups standing at the gates of Basra University, scrutinizing female students to make sure their dresses are the right length and their makeup properly modest.Skip to next paragraph
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Any woman violating their standards of Muslim dignity, relates Henan, a psychology student, is ordered home. "These religious militiamen tell us how to dress, and prevent us from listening to music in public or interacting with male students," she says. "It makes me burn inside."
Henan is not the only Basran furious at the extremist Shiite Muslims who now dominate this southern Iraqi port city bordering Iran. Especially among the middle and intellectual classes, an increasing drumbeat of resentment is rising about what many see as a distortion of Basra's traditionally easygoing, tolerant attitudes toward life.
"No alcohol, no music CDs, woman forced to wear hijab, people murdered in the streets - this is not the city I remember," says Samir, an editor of one of Basra's largest newspapers. (His name, and others, have been changed for security reasons.) "In the past, Basra revolted against attempts to make it too Islamic."
One woman living in Basra says, "Before, we had Saddam; now we have religious parties and militias. To them, a woman's smile is a crime."
With the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Shiite organizations, many with close associations with Iran, seized political control of the south. The Jan. 30 elections solidified their power, especially in Basra, where 35 out of the 41 members of the province's Governing Council (GC) belong to such groups as Dawa Islamiyya or the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). And despite some minor doctrinal differences, their vision of this city is clear.
"Today, our society is changing, becoming more religious," says provincial governor Mohammad al-Waali, who belongs to the Fadhallah (Virtue) Party. "We must reflect that Basra is becoming a purely Islamic city."
Sunnis, in particular, are unhappy with this fledgling Shiite theocracy. "After the fall of Saddam, we expected a degree of political oppression from the Shiite majority," says Jamal Khazaal, director of the Basra headquarters of the Islamic Religious Party, a predominantly Sunni group. "But in many ways, this is more difficult than we anticipated."
Others contend that devotion to extreme Islam does not itself solve Basra's problems. "These people held power for two years, and what did they accomplish?" says Samir. "Basra is in shambles, we are without electricity, fresh water, and security. They didn't even give us hope."
Others criticize GC members for, among other things, a lack of education (some have not graduated from secondary school), questionable business dealings (one member oversaw a multimillion-dollar road construction project that never materialized), and ties to Iran (a Ministry of Defense official in Basra claims that "50 percent" of the GC have ties to the Islamic Republic).
"We have over 70 political parties, many without any constituents," says one academic. "Where do they get their funding? And whose interests do they serve - Basra's or Tehran's?"
If Iran casts a political shadow over Basra, its influence on the city's social life is even greater. Over the past year, for example, many women changed their hijab style from the traditional Iraqi buknuk, or tight-fitting cowl, to the looser Iranian-style scarf. "But of course, the whole idea of compulsory hijab is Iranian," says Salaam Wendy, a Basran who recently returned to the city after living overseas for 20 years. "In the 1960s and 70s, you rarely saw women in Basra covered."