BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Dally, a 19-year-old Iraqi, braves unruly customers and social condemnation when she takes to the stage in revealing belly-dancing garb at a Baghdad nightclub each night.
But the hassle she faces -- in a country where many women wear long black robes showing only their faces -- is a long way from the dangers at the height of Iraq’s sectarian war, when militias executed people seen as transgressing social norms and suicide bombers killed dozens of people at a time.
Known in the 1970s and 1980s as a permissive, anything-goes corner of the Middle East, Iraq slowly became more socially conservative.
Things changed sharply after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when Islamist parties gained power and extremist groups took control over swaths of Iraq, forcing women at gunpoint to dress modestly and preventing unmarried youths from mingling.
In Baghdad, nightclubs were shuttered and people dared not venture out at night.
As the worst of the violence unleashed in 2003 has faded, a buzzing nightlife has returned to the Iraqi capital. Some 17 nightclubs have opened in Baghdad, most featuring provocative dancers, suggestive music and ample booze.
“This shows there is democracy in Iraq. It is healthy for people under pressure to express repressed feelings,” Dally said.
Only a small share of people in this mainly Muslim country visit nightclubs. But at one busy club whose name means ‘Violet Corner’ in Arabic, waiters squeeze themselves around tables crowded with customers and women who work as lap dancers.
The new Iraqi night scene has changed -- for one thing, it is more expensive in Iraq’s highly dollarized economy. Entry into clubs can run as high as $50.
Clubs are packed with people of all dress and backgrounds: men in traditional Arab dishdash robes, businessmen in suits, youths wearing skintight T-shirts and jeans. Beefy bouncers stand watch, although security is light by Iraqi standards.
Ahmed al-Araji, 28, drinking a beer in the Violet Corner nightclub, said he thought night-time mingling could help tear down sectarian and ethnic barriers between Shi‘ites, Sunnis, Kurds and others that have been so destructive since 2003.
Suzan, a 19-year-old who works at the Meramar nightclub in central Baghdad, points out that such clubs give people jobs.
Iraq, where 45 percent of the workforce is jobless or underemployed, will have to diversify its oil-reliant economy if it wants to stamp out an insurgency feeding on jobless youths.
Dally herself left school at early age and started dancing two years ago -- she earns $1,000 a month, a fortune for a young Iraqi woman to be making -- to support her family after the death of her father.
“My family’s situation was what forced me to take this job,” she said. “I fear God, but I had to dance to work.”
No matter the improvements, Iraq remains a dangerous place and suicide bombers still kill dozens in single blasts. Many Iraqis fear there will be worse to come now that U.S. combat troops have withdrawn from urban bases.
Religious parties dominate Iraqi politics and the country’s future, ahead of national polls in January, is still uncertain.
Following the night’s performance, Dally dons a black headscarf and all-encompassing cloak before she makes her way home, a reminder that Iraqis still look over their shoulders.
Editing by Missy Ryan and Dominic Evans