jueves, agosto 04, 2005

"What would happen if I punched this guy?"

An Usamerican, Steven Vincent, was kidnapped and killed in Iraq. The guy was working on a book on how the living in “free Basra” is. Now the naïve Steven is dead. Here, one of his last posts.

June 24

"What is one of the main sources of the problems afflicting Basra these days? Pull up a chair, habibitie, and I'll tell you ... so there we are, my translator Layla and I, chatting in the funduk coffee shop with Dr Basma. The day is hot and dry enough to dehydrate a sponge, and Layla divests her abiya to carry on the interview in a scarf, long-sleeved blouse and jeans. All perfectly modest. But even as Dr Basma recounts how increasing numbers of students are shrouding themselves in the hijab, a man walks in, plants himself in front of the television and sits transfixed by the on-screen bevy of dark-eyed houri prancing, dancing and rotating their heads until their thick, black-as-the-Kaaba tresses spin like propellors. The irony is not lost at our table, though we don't mention it.

The man feels no such discretion: soon, instead of Lebanese teens in adornment-revealing half-cut Ts and crotch-level jeans, he's staring at us - with the blank, malevolently stupid glare I've encountered so often. I tense; Layla, sensitive to my misplaced gallantry, cautions, "I know, I know, just ignore him." But I can't. "You have a problem?" I snap. The man garbles something, looks back to the TV, then glares at us once more. By now I'm thinking, "What would happen if I punched this guy?", when Layla murmurs with exasperation, "It's me," and re-abiyas herself. Muslim dignity restored, the man returns to ogling the video vixens in their chadorless abandon, hair, limbs, hips moving with the freedom Iraqi women experience only in their dreams.

Once more, I'm reminded that the real agents of Iraq's fate are not media-friendly issues such as the "insurgency" or the "occupation", or even the upcoming constitutional convention, but subtle, non-documentable social norms that regulate the lives of nearly every person in this country - especially females. It astonishes me, the ways in which Iraqi men control their women with their obsessions on "reputation", "honour" and that all-purpose cudgel, "proper Muslim behaviour".

Men, of course, maintain no such standards of conduct. Polygamy and "temporary marriage" are legal here, so any single woman is subject to the advances of any man, married or not. Even if they aren't bold enough to confess their ardour, the hope, or fantasy, burns in their minds and fills their eyes with a queasy leer.

Adding hypocrisy to chauvinism, the religious parties take the opposite tack in public, policing female behaviour with vigour. Yesterday, a 22-year-old psych grad from Basra University told me how, as they enter the campus each day, female students have to pass religious militiamen "hired" by the administration for "protection". They examine each woman's hijab - no showing of hair, ladies - and the length of their abiyas, staring into their faces for signs of makeup. Anyone failing the Islamic dignity test is sent home. I asked how this made her feel. She grimaced and curled her fingers into two trembling talons. "It burns inside. We are not free to dress or act as we like. The religious parties have banned music, social interaction, relaxation. I am depressed all the time."

This is what Basra has become in the aftermath of the elections. These are the unwritten, unlegislated and unchallengeable "social" and "religious" norms that have an iron grip on the city. Yet back home, you hardly find a public discussion or even acknowledgement of these shackles on human behaviour - the right is too busy congratulating itself on the progress of Iraqi democracy and the left is obsessed with multicultural relativism and discrediting Bush".