Iraq Pulse

Iraqi Youth Strike Balance Between Conservatism, Modernity

Article Summary
Iraqi youths have eagerly embraced aspects of Western culture and style while remaining committed to the rituals and teachings of their religious traditions.

The youth in Iraq are taking advantage of the summer months to wear the clothes they like and flaunt their flexibility in changing hairdos and giving themselves makeovers. In light of the increasing social openness and society's improving purchasing power, advocates of conservatism find themselves at odds with the emergence of modern trends.

Imad Saqr, a social researcher and youth-affairs activist, told Al-Monitor, “The young people who follow modern traditions are religiously conservative and expressive and enthusiastic when it comes to religious events.”

It is now common in Iraq to show religious affiliations through fashion, blending local religious culture with Western and modern style. Mohammad Kamel, 18, has his armed tattooed with the sword of Imam Ali, which is currently in fashion in Iraq. In Adhamiyah in Baghdad, Rahim Maher had his wrist tattooed with the name of Omar, an influential 6th century caliph.

Saqr highlights a love for “change” among Iraq's youth, who follow the latest trends in clothing, hairstyles and cellphones. Even young boys buy the latest technological devices that broadcast religious texts, prayers and Quranic recitation, embodying an amazing harmony between love for modern technology and attachment to social and religious customs and values.

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Saqr accuses Western nations of seeking to spread their culture via the modern technology exported to various countries around the world.

He says, “Most Iraqi youth reject the criticism against them and feel that they live in a democratic society where they are free to express themselves in appropriate ways. Parents, however, describe these sorts of convictions among young people as delinquency.”

In 2013, the US Agency for Human Development confirmed that “Iraq is home to one of the most youthful populations in the world. … Currently, the unemployment rate for young adults in Iraq is around 18%, leaving the youth population frustrated, dependent and desperate for work.”

However, cleric Abdul-Rahman al-Dulaimi of Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad, criticizes the openness and "cultural mess" that followed the events of 2003, refusing to place the changes under the category of “freedom and democracy.” Speaking to Al-Monitor, he notes that there is a “plot” against Islam, one that aims to corrupt the minds of the youth.

“The youth of Iraq are uncontrolled and do whatever they like,” he added.

A lot of accessories and jewelry stores sell Western clothes, hats and necklaces with religious symbols, photos of Western celebrities and other Western products.

The head of Iraq's Youth Parliament, Hossam al-Rubaie, told Al-Monitor that he calls on the concerned authorities to “understand the needs of the youth and study their material and cultural demands.”

Ali al-Moussawi, an Iraqi journalist, describes to Al-Monitor what is happening as a “cultural conflict about identity among the young people of Iraq.”

“The youth," he says, "are looking for a cultural and religious identity. They change the icons they wear every now and then. On religious occasions, they are overly enthusiastic about performing religious rituals. On regular days, however, they exaggerate their openness, drawing criticism from society.”

One can easily notice the many cultures that entered Iraq with the invasion of 2003: rap music, tattoos, metal ornaments, ripped jeans and high boots.

The youth are following Western trends in hairstyles and even the way they walk, both girls and boys alike. Rusool Azzawi, a university student, tells Al-Monitor that the “latest trend” followed by girls is Western-style slim-fit pants, with "weird" names such as sahel (baggy jeans), “classic” and boori (skinny jeans).

“Most Iraqi girls maintain a conservative appearance in front of their parents and relatives, for fear of provoking their anger. In private meetings and at university, however, they transform into modern characters who they like,” she explains.

Girls in Iraq, especially university students and employees, are keen on wearing clothes imported from different countries that are new to Iraqi society. These include al-dalaa (a shirt without sleeves), al-tawil (a long-sleeved shirt), al-qasir (a short shirt that just reaches the belly), nosf wardan (a short skirt or shirt), rebeh (similar to nosf wardan) and talbis (trendy shirts). These are local names, created in the street to distinguish between the different tastes.

Sooad al-Qaisi, a salesperson in a shop that sells Western accessories, tells Al-Monitor that “The Internet, foreign TV series and films have allowed the youth to follow the style of Western celebrities and Arab singers.”

According to Qaisi, Iraqi girls used to wear "classic" skirts, cloche skirts, fishtail skirts and short skirts, but they are currently wearing Western pants or the Gulf-style abaya. In universities, institutions and laboratories, however, they prefer to wear pants with a headscarf.

Qaisi believes that “While the headscarf was once a religious duty, it has transformed into a social habit” subject to fashion, with different forms and colors depending on the circumstances.

Indeed, unveiled women are wearing headscarves as fashion, and they let their Western hairstyles — with exciting and attractive colors — peep from under the veil.

In addition, fashion and beauty magazines have become very popular in various cities of Iraq.

Louay, a hairdresser, gave Al-Monitor some details about what happens in his salon in Babil province, south of Baghdad. He decided to call his salon “Berlin,” as he lived in Germany for eight years, and the salon’s Western style attracts many teenagers. Louay points out that weird haircuts and hairdos are in fashion these days, especially the “spiky” style, nakroosh (permanents) and using lots of hair gel.

Louay says that today, most of the young people are fond of Western haircuts like the mohawk, and some have even completely shaved their hair, in another imitation of Western fashion.

Interestingly, according to Louay, “These young people perform daily religious rituals, and become quite enthusiastic when it comes to participating in festivals and religious occasions. In contrast, they follow a purely Western style when it comes to fashion.”

This is a great paradox, according to Kassem Saleh, a social researcher and psychologist. He told Al-Monitor that this is due to “the youth’s fascination for two opposing things: The first includes a past, religious heritage fueled by Friday sermons and ‘sacred’ historical events. The second, meanwhile, is a Western culture nourished by the satellites, the Internet and modern media outlets. This turns this dual behavior into a negative situation that raises new generations searching for their cultural and intellectual identity.”

Wassim Bassem is an Iraqi journalist specializing in following social phenomena through investigations and reports published in various media outlets inclduing Al-Esbuyia, Bab Nour and Elaph.

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Found in: us, iraq, fashion

Wassim Bassem is an Iraqi journalist who tracks social phenomena in investigations and reports for various media outlets, including Al-Esbuyia, Bab Nour and Elaph.

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