May 2, 2010 / 9:52 AM / 8 years ago

Baghdad cafe waitresses break down barriers

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Hind al-Bidairi’s dream of owning a cafe with an all-female waiting staff haunted her for years while Iraq was gripped by sectarian violence.

Islamic fundamentalists would most likely have slaughtered her and her employees had she dared.

But now, as Iraq struggles free from widespread bloodshed and the Islamist militia and insurgents who once sowed terror by killing women they considered inappropriately dressed have retreated to the shadows, her dream has come true.

“I stand behind every woman trying to change the pattern of our society, to show that women are strong and have the right to get involved in all kinds of business,” Bidairi said.

In the sectarian war that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, groups like al-Qaeda fought to establish a system where the wearing of western style clothing by women instead of the hijab -- a Muslim headscarf -- was “haram,” forbidden.

Running a business that employed waitresses would likely have been viewed with outrage by religious purists.

The rise to power of Iraq’s Shi‘ite Muslim majority after the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was accompanied by the rise of religious parties not all that sympathetic to calls for gender equality.

Violence has fallen sharply, although there are still daily bombings and attacks by a stubborn Sunni insurgency.

Sectarian tensions have risen since a March election produced no clear winner and pitted Shi‘ite factions against a cross-sectarian alliance that won broad support among Sunnis.

But the influence of fundamentalist groups has waned, to the point where the idea of women running businesses here is no longer a flight of fancy.

“Iraq is changing for the better and ideas are also changing,” Bidairi, also a journalist, said with enthusiasm.

The cafe is on the sixth floor of a hotel in central Baghdad, with a panoramic view of the Tigris river, which snakes through the heart of Iraq’s capital.

Most of the guests are families and couples. Men are allowed, on condition they behave themselves.

If a man flirts with a waitress, he is gently asked to leave and never return.

Bidairi recalls that when she first mentioned the idea of running a cafe with waitresses, many people warned her she was asking for trouble.

“They told me you will be fought by radical parties,” she said. “That is why I postponed the idea at the time.”

Now, four years later, a handful of women work as waitresses in the recently opened cafe, saying they are happy to have a job in a country where official unemployment rate is 18 percent but where the real rate is believed to be 30 percent or higher.

Head waitress A‘aza al-Baghdadi shares Bidairi’s vision of challenging the norms of Iraq’s male-dominated society.

“We wanted to break down the barrier that says there is a difference between men and women,” she said. “We have succeeded in breaking down this barrier.”

In a quiet corner of the cafe, a man and a woman sat sipping tea and chatting. They said they were happy that having a new Iraq also meant the implementation of new ideas.

“This is the second time we have come here,” said the woman, Noor Ali. “We like it because it is quiet. We like the design, the view and we liked being served by women, they are so nice.”

“We call it ‘the empire of women’,” Ali added.

Bidairi said this is not the end of her dream. She aims to open more woman-run cafes in other provinces.

“I hope other women will do projects like these,” she said.

Editing by Nick Carey

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