First women-only bank opens in Iraq holy city

Tue Oct 27, 2009 11:49am EDT
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By Khaled Farhan

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.   Continued...