BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Every month college student Zahraa Ali joins the growing number of Iraqi women treating themselves to hair, health and beauty therapies that a few years ago were the stuff of daydreams.
As Iraq’s violence ebbs and Baghdad life stabilizes, hair salons, gyms and beauty centers are starting to flourish again in the capital, bringing back a touch of glamour lost during the country’s bloody sectarian strife following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the preceding economic sanctions in the 1990s.
“We were deprived because of security, and these centers were not even available. But now it is becoming normal again,” said Ali, sitting with strands of her hair wrapped in foil at a Baghdad salon.
Baghdad’s streets were more dangerous just a few years ago, at the height of Shi‘ite-Sunni sectarian violence in 2006-2007, when bombings, assassinations and attacks brought the country close to civil war.
Bombings and attacks have dropped sharply more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, and the country is slowly rebuilding its economy with revenues generated by its recovering oil industry.
Attacks by Sunni Islamist insurgents and radical Shi‘ite militias still occur daily, and Iraqis also struggle with massive power shortages, dilapidated infrastructure and a frustrating lack of basic services.
But hairdressers, beauty experts and cosmetic surgeons who fled the country or left for the more stable semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq are now returning to re-establish businesses and tap into the capital’s demands.
For Ahmed Murad, who runs a lavish salon in the upscale Harthiya district near the fortified Green Zone, more and more Iraqi women are these days are relishing a chance to indulge themselves.
“Iraqi women have suffered from pressures and suppression during the economic sanctions and even after the 2003 war,” said Murad. “Now Iraqi women are looking to the latest trends.”
Iraq is generally a less conservative Muslim society than many of its neighbors, mainly because of the religious, ethnic and sectarian mix in its society, compared with mostly Sunni Saudi Arabia or predominantly Shi‘ite Iran next door.
In Baghdad, women often go without the hijab or traditional headdress, especially in private clubs or areas of the city considered less religiously strict. At gyms, they were shorts and t-shirts. Some cover their heads again when leaving salons.
During the 1970s it was common to see women strolling Baghdad’s streets in miniskirts, although Saddam at times imposed stricter religious interpretations of Islam in an effort to tighten his political grip.
After the invasion, militias often imposed their radical vision of Islam on the population. Militias were known to demand hair salons remove pictures of women not wearing the hijab or headscarves as they believe is required.
In southern Shi‘ite-dominated regions, woman were sometimes killed by militias for dressing inappropriately.
As the worst of the sectarian violence has eased and the influence of fundamentalist groups has waned, Iraqi women are opening businesses and returning to more normal lives.
The country’s fledgling economic revival is now also allowing women to spend up to $100 on highlighting their hair at one of the city’s more upscale salons.
Murad himself was not immune from the war. He was arrested by the U.S. forces in 2005, then released after three months of investigation. He fled Iraq for Istanbul where he stayed for two years before deciding to return.
While in Turkey, he studied hairdressing and came back to open a salon inside a secured area of a social club. After security improved he started again in Harthiya.
Murad has 300 families who come to him regularly at his salon, which is just one offering in a building with a health club, saunas, jacuzzis, facial care products and even a coffee shop for women who enjoy a coffee or smoking a shisha pipe.
A Lebanese doctor has been contracted to practice at a cosmetic surgery clinic there. Iraqi women are looking for laser hair removal treatments and skin rejuvenation techniques as well as the whole range of surgery options.
“It is a whole home of women’s beauty and fitness,” said Yassin Taha, the owner of the beauty building which he started last year after selling his home.
Saba al-Hussein, a laser expert in the al-Shabakah beauty center in central Baghdad, left Iraq in 2006 and came back in 2009. She learned how to use a cosmetic laser for hair removal while living in Lebanon.
“There are bad things that happened, but the person should take advantage of them for the best. We ran away from Iraq, but leaving turned out to be useful,” Hussein said at her clinic.
“The sectarian period helped me, (as) I went abroad and became an expert in laser.”
Al-Shabakah is a full-service center -- beside the hairdresser section, gym, laser clinic, saunas and jacuzzis, and coffee shop, it will have a yoga department and will soon hold fashion shows, owner Ali Bulbul said.
Bulbul used to run a beauty center but he closed it in 2006 for fear of extremist militias who believed his business should be banned under their stricter interpretation of Islamic law.
He used to operate a salon near Sadr City, the heartland of the Mehdi Army Shi‘ite militia. He was never threatened but closed up shop anticipating that he would.
While some Iraqis worry about a return to sectarian violence, many believe those darker days are behind them.
Many Iraqi women look to Lebanon as an inspiration for beauty ideals in the Arab world. Glamorous Lebanese female singers and stars grace television programs and music shows seen around the region.
When Iraqis refer to idols of beauty, health care and fitness, they refer to Lebanon.
“The Iraqi women deserve to be pampered like those in the Gulf or Lebanese woman,” said Zeena Rashid, the manager of al-Shabakah’s gym, where customers ran on treadmills.
“She deserves that after all the hardship she has been through.”
Editing by Paul Casciato