BAGHDAD -- They want to be invisible, these young women at Baghdad University explained. They were sitting in a small group -- five students with pale head scarves pulled tightly around their somber faces.
They would not give their names. That would be crazy, they said. The whole point of wearing the scarves now was to be anonymous and unimportant, to avoid being singled out and followed, or kidnapped, or shot. It was more than a matter of blending in. It was a matter of disappearing into the landscape.
"I put on the scarf because I wanted to walk in the street without fearing someone will kill me or kidnap me," said one of the women. " I want to finish my studies. Without the scarf I cannot. I heard rumors about killing women without a scarf. Why should I risk my life?"
This is the new reality for many women in Iraq, Muslims and Christians alike. As the months have passed since the U.S.-led invasion, fewer women are daring to venture out without wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf, called a hejab in Arabic. In Baghdad, moderate Muslim women used to feel they had a choice whether to wear the scarf, even as religious oppression under Saddam Hussein grew over the past decade. Now, in many neighborhoods, it is hard to find a woman outdoors without a head scarf.
Conservative Muslims believe that women should cover their heads to hide their beauty and not tempt the men who see them. Such instructions are spelled out in the Koran, the Islamic holy book.
The practice of wearing head scarves varies widely throughout the Islamic world, from more secular countries such as Turkey where many women dress in the Western style, to strict religious societies such as Saudi Arabia where all women cover their heads and most of their faces in public.
In the past several years, an increasing number of Muslim women living in Western Europe have begun wearing scarves -- in some cases as a religious statement, in other cases because of pressure from other local immigrants.
Although Iraq is predominantly Muslim, for many decades its capital was a trendy, modern city. In the 1960s, women wore short skirts and blouses with low necklines. But their daughters say they do not have such freedom today. They blame a postwar insurgency bolstered by conservative hard-liners.
"Because of the current situation in the country, lack of security, the occupation and many other things, people started to look for a way to escape the terror," said Fadhil Shaker, a psychology professor at Baghdad University. "They want to hide or take shelter to protect themselves. For women, the scarf is the best way to protect them. Women believe the scarf will be the wall to prevent people from looking at them."
Before the war, Iraqi Christian women rarely put on scarves. There was no reason to do so, according to Christian women interviewed recently. Their religion did not dictate it, Muslims and Christians in Iraq got along peacefully and they said they felt no pressure to blend in. Even a few months ago, the sight of a Christian woman without a scarf or a Catholic nun in a habit was not uncommon in neighborhoods where Christians gathered.
But these days Iraqi society feels like it has lost its social compact, its religious tolerance, many of the women said. Christians feel singled out. Anyone associated with the Americans, any foreign military force or the interim government feels singled out.
Nada, a student who declined to give her last name, said the first day she went to college this fall, her mother rushed out of the house at the last moment and presented her with a scarf. She had never worn one.
Female students at Baghdad University now debate whether women should wear the scarves. Some wear them for religious reasons. But most who have recently adopted the practice have done so simply out of fear.
"If a woman or a girl is in scarf, she could save herself from many problems," said a Muslim student who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I come to the university comfortable because I know men won't look at a woman in scarf, or at least they will not bother me. The scarf helps me to walk in the street freely."