NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - In one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest cities, a bank has opened a branch only for women, hoping to tap a potentially large market and meet pent-up demand from Muslim women for financial services that meet their needs.
The manager of the Najaf branch of the private Babel bank is, however, a man. He must make an appointment before making a visit and enter the premises through a back door.
"Through this bank they (women customers) can unveil and exercise complete freedom in dealing with the employees," said Mazen Abdul-Razzaq, Babel's deputy director.
A study by The Boston Consulting Group, which included Iraq, found that women worldwide were particularly dissatisfied when it came to financial services.
Iraqi women interviewed at the women-only bank in Najaf say they felt uncomfortable dealing with male bank clerks in regular banks and felt much more relaxed in the new branch.
The establishment in Najaf of the branch, which opened a week ago and gave access to a few male journalists to publicize the event, reflects to some extent the religious conservatism that pervades the city -- a major center of Shi'ite learning.
Women in the city have long been expected for religious and cultural reasons to wear all-enveloping abayas, and hijabs, or scarves, to cover their hair.
Iraq was once considered among the more westernized countries in the Middle East. After the first Gulf war and the sanctions in the 1990s, former dictator Saddam Hussein used religion to shore up support for his largely secular regime.
In the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion, which led to Iraq's Shi'ite majority taking power, religious conservatives and militias on both sides of the sectarian divide imposed often draconian restrictions on women.
Some restrictions have since eased, though many remain.
In the women-only branch in Najaf, women tellers sit behind windowed booths, bricks of Iraqi dinars piled to one side, while counting machines flutter through wads of U.S. $100 bills.
Standing in line, a woman calling herself Um Zina or "Mother of Zina," said Najaf needed more places like it.
"Woman will go out freely to places where there are only women," the beauty parlor employee said. "I encourage such ideas so women don't get embarrassed."
Iqbal Mohammed, head of accounts at the bank, sees the new branch benefiting all Iraqi women, but especially those in Najaf who are "isolated in her house and busy raising children."
"We have backed her to exercise one of her rights. We have given her the right to go outdoors and do some business."
Iraq's banking sector, like its society, is changing.
Most is still run by the state, which controls about 80 percent of gross domestic product. But the private banks that have set up shop are booming. Bankers speak of a surge in deposits and loans as the violence began to subside.
The increasing security is still fragile - twin suicide bombs in Baghdad Sunday killed 155 people.
If the women-only branch is successful, others may follow, said Abdul Aziz Hassoun, head of the Iraqi Private Banks League.
"This is going to be something that is desirable, and it is not limited only to the holy cities ... maybe other banks will copy this example once there is demand," he said.
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad; Writing by Jack Kimball; Editing by Jon Boyle and Samia Nakhoul