“Covered From Head to Toe”: Women under Constant Scrutiny in the Homes of their In-Laws 

Reem Abd

13 Sep 2023

In extended family homes, many women are forced to wear uncomfortable clothes to comply with what is perceived to be modest dress. For instance, they are not allowed to wear cap-sleeved or short-sleeved clothes, calf-length dresses, or pyjamas. They are required to wear long, loose, thick dresses with linings or slips underneath and long-sleeved vests. How do women live under watchful eyes inside their homes in stifling temperatures?

“Gosh! Summer becomes hell for us women. We wear hijabs, thick garments and full slips, but they are still not satisfied. My mother-in-law shouts and glowers at us, ‘Cover yourselves!’ and so do my husband and brothers-in-law”. Umm Zahraa, a thirty-seven-year-old teacher from Maysan, explains her struggle living in her in-laws’ home,1 which is typical in Iraq where extended families live together in houses ranging in size from fifty square metres to 250 square metres, sometimes consisting of two or more floors. 

Women and their children usually occupy small rooms on the upper floor of their in-laws’ home. These rooms become extremely hot when the power goes off or fluctuates, causing air conditioners and refrigerators to stop working.  

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 
 

Women go down to the ground floor to escape the heat, which is usually cooler than the upper level. However, they must wear the full-body veil when leaving their rooms to enter the shared space with their in-laws. Thus, they feel restricted and cannot rest, relax, or even enjoy a cool breeze, as they fear being seen unveiled by the men of the house. 

Not only the headscarf but also arm sleeves, stockings and leggings 

Umm Zahraa complains about the sweltering heat and sense of suffocation while wearing the full-body veil,2 “We clean, sweep, do the laundry and cook in the stifling heat of the kitchen till we get stewed. We cannot even show a single hair or a part of our feet and hands. If we are outside our rooms, we suffocate so that none of the men sees us”. 

Umm Zahraa lives along with her three co-sisters-in-law. In line with religious conventions, they and their daughters must wear thick, long clothes and veils. All girls living in family homes must adhere to this form of dress once they reach the age of nine. They must cover themselves with the full-body veil in the presence of their non-mahram relatives [males whom they are allowed to marry] who live with them. 

Jannat, a twenty-three-year-old pharmacy student, is one such young woman. “I wore the hijab at the age of ten, not only outside the house but also inside. My mother then bought me loose-fitting, long clothes and a Sayah3 [traditional Iraqi clothing], which I wore whenever I went out or at home in front of my cousins. I did not have my own room and if I went to my parent’s room while roaming the house, I still had my hijab on. I even used to sleep with it on and only take it off while showering. It used to get extremely hot in the summer and my head got soaked in sweat till my hair smelled; this is why I have thinning, weakened hair”. 

Rarely does an individual girl or her sisters get a private room in a small-family home, let alone living in an extended in-laws’ home. Girls’ time and space are highly constrained, and they get exhausted as they can hardly find a place to sit, relax, or study. 

Saja, a twenty-five-year-old from Basra, who just got married a few months ago, talks about her experience living in her husband’s family home. She lives in a sixteen-square-metre room on the upper floor, which she cannot stay in most of the time because her in-laws constantly ask her to go down and serve them. Therefore, she has to wear the full-body veil. Saja says that when she is in a hurry to go down or gets tired of changing from her comfortable clothes to the concealing, stifling ones, that she is forced to wear, she quickly puts on an Isdal [prayer garment] or a Sayah over her pyjamas. Even when she goes to the toilet, she adheres to these coverings. 

She says, “It is not just the hijab [headscarf], but also arm sleeves, stockings, and leggings that we wear under our clothes while we clean the house and wash the sheets in the courtyard so that our in-laws and their children do not see our hands and feet because it is forbidden”. 

Daughters, mothers, grandmothers and co-sisters-in-law all watch each other closely 

Saja and her co-sisters-in-law feel very uncomfortable and hot because of these clothes and coverings, which cause stifling feelings, itching, and sometimes skin rashes. However, their husbands, mother-in-law and sons monitor their obedience. They are warned and punished by yells, threats and even beatings if they ever disregard or defy the rules. 

It is not only men who monitor women’s dress at home, but also co-sisters-in-law monitor each other, as they fear that their husbands might look at their brothers’ wives. They consider that if one of them fails to adhere to the full-body veil, it may be because she intends to seduce one of her brothers-in-law (their husbands). Therefore, they rebuke her or turn to her husband to discipline her to ensure she does not repeat her negligence in wearing the full-body veil. This happened to Saja, who sarcastically said, “My co-sisters-in-law are jealous of their husbands and they scrutinise my veil at home more than shrine inspectors”. 

Nowadays, most Iraqi families impose the full-body veil on women in the presence of all non-mahram relatives. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 
 

This was not the case at least twenty years ago, or maybe it was not as common as today. Things changed due to the second Islamisation4 after 2003 when controls and constraints on women began to spread through minbars [pulpits] of Hawzas [religious Shiʿa seminaries], mosques, and Hussainiyas [congregation halls for Shiʿa ceremonies] attended by men and women. Recently, these controls have started to spread on social media as well. 

I remember attending the Eve of Ashura [the night before the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein] in 2014, where the Mullaya [a female professional mourner] was giving women a lecture on the full-body veil, warning them of the sin of being exposed, even in front of young children, cousins, in-laws, and all other relatives. Therefore, she obliged us to also wear black stockings (under the veil) in the presence of our relatives, saying that she who wears sheer stockings will harm Imam Al-Mahdi [the last of the Twelve Imams], as if an arrow penetrated his heart. “You will hurt the Imam of the age!” She said, “Endure being veiled in summer, even in the hottest month of August, as your reward will be greater”. 

Religious leaders advocate constraints on women’s clothing inside homes for modesty and concealment, which puts psychological and physical pressure on most of them. Umm Zahraa describes her situation as an ‘affliction’ because her hands are tied. She and her co-sisters-in-law fear disregarding the obligation of wearing full-body veils, even unintentionally, because most of these tormented women are believers. Additionally, they fear the punishment of their husbands and the anger of their mother-in-law. “We bear the heat of this life, the heavy veil in the presence of our in-laws, during the summer, to avoid hell in the Hereafter”. 

The teachings of religion, the exhortations of its leaders, and the treatment of families draw our attention to another vital matter relating to society’s reaction to cases of sexual violence against women. It is common for women to be blamed when they get sexually harassed and molested in public “because of how they dress”.  

Even more distressing, however, I found the same attitude prevalent towards women subjected to sexual assault at home, especially in cases of incestuous rape and assault by mahrams (male relatives which women are not permitted to marry) which have been exposed.  

In the patriarchal family system, it is common for women to be considered ‘temptresses’ who provoke immoral behaviour. The wife is blamed when her father-in-law or brother-in-law sexually assaults her, and the girl is blamed when one of her relatives (her brother, father, grandfather, uncle, or cousins) molests her. This is because, as they believe, she did not adhere to the full-body veil or modest coverings at home, making her the one to blame for seducing them. Girls are even criticised and blamed for how they sit and move, which may tempt molesters. 

Moving out is not an option! 

Umm Zahraa’s only dream is to move out with her husband from his family’s home to their own separate house where she can wear what suits the summer heat, without covering her entire body. However, her husband refuses to move out despite his ability to rent or buy a suitable place. 

It is common in Iraq for men to continue living in their parents’ houses along with their wives after marriage. The most prominent reason is their financial situation, which prevents them from buying or renting a separate home. Therefore, they spend years living with their families, and the duration varies according to each man’s case. 

However, there are also the family and tribal customs that force sons and their wives to stay in the family home. Often, men do not object because they see that this exploitative type of housing eases the burden of responsibility. They also know that it helps them avoid independence, which they are not ready for due to the predominant patriarchal upbringing that focuses on family interdependency without considering that their wives may lose their freedom and comfort in family homes.  

“He does not want to move out nor be separated from his family as if he is not yet weaned”, Umm Zahraa complains in her attempt to interpret the reason behind her husband’s refusal to live in a private house. 

Is it better in their separate homes? 

Jannat was free from covering her hair in the family home after her father bought them a separate house ten years later. Sadly, she still has no room of her own, not even a shared one with her younger sisters. 

Another type of restriction is imposed on girls living in their parents’ houses (not extended family homes of in-laws), as their home clothes are still restrictive since they are forced to wear uncomfortable clothes during summer in order to be covered. For instance, they are not allowed to wear cap-sleeved or short-sleeved clothes, calf-length dresses, or pyjamas, and they are required to wear long, loose, thick dresses with linings or slips underneath and long-sleeved vests. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 
 

“I cannot dress freely at home because my father and brothers might see me and it is considered shameful This is what my mother has been telling me since I hit puberty. Whenever my father sees me wearing something he does not like, he tells me to take off those ‘raunchy’ clothes, and he beat me several times”, said Shahd, a sixteen-year-old high school student. 

Shahd’s brothers, like her father, became enraged, blame, and beat her when they saw her wearing home clothing that they considered inappropriate. She continues, “I overheard my parents talking about me, saying that I deserve it because I intend to wear such clothes to appear seductive”. 

Scorpions in the heat 

It was and still is common to sleep on the roof to stay cool due to the lack of electricity and the poor financial situation of many families. However, with the rise of Islamic demands to isolate and cover women in recent years, female family members are excluded from this minor relief from the hot nights in family homes unless segregation conditions are met. These include dividing each family group by sheets, hanging on ropes and secured with bricks at the bottom. Otherwise, daughters-in-law and their adult daughters must sleep inside the house.  

Their situation is difficult, especially if the houses are unventilated, old, or made of cement blocks and tin, as insects and scorpions crawl out on them inside. Women kill the scorpion and then burn it inside so that other hidden scorpions smell it and do not come out.5 

With all this, where should women escape to from the heat in summer? 

*All names in the article are aliases. 

Reem Abd: an Iraqi writer and journalist. 

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“Gosh! Summer becomes hell for us women. We wear hijabs, thick garments and full slips, but they are still not satisfied. My mother-in-law shouts and glowers at us, ‘Cover yourselves!’ and so do my husband and brothers-in-law”. Umm Zahraa, a thirty-seven-year-old teacher from Maysan, explains her struggle living in her in-laws’ home,1 which is typical in Iraq where extended families live together in houses ranging in size from fifty square metres to 250 square metres, sometimes consisting of two or more floors. 

Women and their children usually occupy small rooms on the upper floor of their in-laws’ home. These rooms become extremely hot when the power goes off or fluctuates, causing air conditioners and refrigerators to stop working.  

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 
 

Women go down to the ground floor to escape the heat, which is usually cooler than the upper level. However, they must wear the full-body veil when leaving their rooms to enter the shared space with their in-laws. Thus, they feel restricted and cannot rest, relax, or even enjoy a cool breeze, as they fear being seen unveiled by the men of the house. 

Not only the headscarf but also arm sleeves, stockings and leggings 

Umm Zahraa complains about the sweltering heat and sense of suffocation while wearing the full-body veil,2 “We clean, sweep, do the laundry and cook in the stifling heat of the kitchen till we get stewed. We cannot even show a single hair or a part of our feet and hands. If we are outside our rooms, we suffocate so that none of the men sees us”. 

Umm Zahraa lives along with her three co-sisters-in-law. In line with religious conventions, they and their daughters must wear thick, long clothes and veils. All girls living in family homes must adhere to this form of dress once they reach the age of nine. They must cover themselves with the full-body veil in the presence of their non-mahram relatives [males whom they are allowed to marry] who live with them. 

Jannat, a twenty-three-year-old pharmacy student, is one such young woman. “I wore the hijab at the age of ten, not only outside the house but also inside. My mother then bought me loose-fitting, long clothes and a Sayah3 [traditional Iraqi clothing], which I wore whenever I went out or at home in front of my cousins. I did not have my own room and if I went to my parent’s room while roaming the house, I still had my hijab on. I even used to sleep with it on and only take it off while showering. It used to get extremely hot in the summer and my head got soaked in sweat till my hair smelled; this is why I have thinning, weakened hair”. 

Rarely does an individual girl or her sisters get a private room in a small-family home, let alone living in an extended in-laws’ home. Girls’ time and space are highly constrained, and they get exhausted as they can hardly find a place to sit, relax, or study. 

Saja, a twenty-five-year-old from Basra, who just got married a few months ago, talks about her experience living in her husband’s family home. She lives in a sixteen-square-metre room on the upper floor, which she cannot stay in most of the time because her in-laws constantly ask her to go down and serve them. Therefore, she has to wear the full-body veil. Saja says that when she is in a hurry to go down or gets tired of changing from her comfortable clothes to the concealing, stifling ones, that she is forced to wear, she quickly puts on an Isdal [prayer garment] or a Sayah over her pyjamas. Even when she goes to the toilet, she adheres to these coverings. 

She says, “It is not just the hijab [headscarf], but also arm sleeves, stockings, and leggings that we wear under our clothes while we clean the house and wash the sheets in the courtyard so that our in-laws and their children do not see our hands and feet because it is forbidden”. 

Daughters, mothers, grandmothers and co-sisters-in-law all watch each other closely 

Saja and her co-sisters-in-law feel very uncomfortable and hot because of these clothes and coverings, which cause stifling feelings, itching, and sometimes skin rashes. However, their husbands, mother-in-law and sons monitor their obedience. They are warned and punished by yells, threats and even beatings if they ever disregard or defy the rules. 

It is not only men who monitor women’s dress at home, but also co-sisters-in-law monitor each other, as they fear that their husbands might look at their brothers’ wives. They consider that if one of them fails to adhere to the full-body veil, it may be because she intends to seduce one of her brothers-in-law (their husbands). Therefore, they rebuke her or turn to her husband to discipline her to ensure she does not repeat her negligence in wearing the full-body veil. This happened to Saja, who sarcastically said, “My co-sisters-in-law are jealous of their husbands and they scrutinise my veil at home more than shrine inspectors”. 

Nowadays, most Iraqi families impose the full-body veil on women in the presence of all non-mahram relatives. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 
 

This was not the case at least twenty years ago, or maybe it was not as common as today. Things changed due to the second Islamisation4 after 2003 when controls and constraints on women began to spread through minbars [pulpits] of Hawzas [religious Shiʿa seminaries], mosques, and Hussainiyas [congregation halls for Shiʿa ceremonies] attended by men and women. Recently, these controls have started to spread on social media as well. 

I remember attending the Eve of Ashura [the night before the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein] in 2014, where the Mullaya [a female professional mourner] was giving women a lecture on the full-body veil, warning them of the sin of being exposed, even in front of young children, cousins, in-laws, and all other relatives. Therefore, she obliged us to also wear black stockings (under the veil) in the presence of our relatives, saying that she who wears sheer stockings will harm Imam Al-Mahdi [the last of the Twelve Imams], as if an arrow penetrated his heart. “You will hurt the Imam of the age!” She said, “Endure being veiled in summer, even in the hottest month of August, as your reward will be greater”. 

Religious leaders advocate constraints on women’s clothing inside homes for modesty and concealment, which puts psychological and physical pressure on most of them. Umm Zahraa describes her situation as an ‘affliction’ because her hands are tied. She and her co-sisters-in-law fear disregarding the obligation of wearing full-body veils, even unintentionally, because most of these tormented women are believers. Additionally, they fear the punishment of their husbands and the anger of their mother-in-law. “We bear the heat of this life, the heavy veil in the presence of our in-laws, during the summer, to avoid hell in the Hereafter”. 

The teachings of religion, the exhortations of its leaders, and the treatment of families draw our attention to another vital matter relating to society’s reaction to cases of sexual violence against women. It is common for women to be blamed when they get sexually harassed and molested in public “because of how they dress”.  

Even more distressing, however, I found the same attitude prevalent towards women subjected to sexual assault at home, especially in cases of incestuous rape and assault by mahrams (male relatives which women are not permitted to marry) which have been exposed.  

In the patriarchal family system, it is common for women to be considered ‘temptresses’ who provoke immoral behaviour. The wife is blamed when her father-in-law or brother-in-law sexually assaults her, and the girl is blamed when one of her relatives (her brother, father, grandfather, uncle, or cousins) molests her. This is because, as they believe, she did not adhere to the full-body veil or modest coverings at home, making her the one to blame for seducing them. Girls are even criticised and blamed for how they sit and move, which may tempt molesters. 

Moving out is not an option! 

Umm Zahraa’s only dream is to move out with her husband from his family’s home to their own separate house where she can wear what suits the summer heat, without covering her entire body. However, her husband refuses to move out despite his ability to rent or buy a suitable place. 

It is common in Iraq for men to continue living in their parents’ houses along with their wives after marriage. The most prominent reason is their financial situation, which prevents them from buying or renting a separate home. Therefore, they spend years living with their families, and the duration varies according to each man’s case. 

However, there are also the family and tribal customs that force sons and their wives to stay in the family home. Often, men do not object because they see that this exploitative type of housing eases the burden of responsibility. They also know that it helps them avoid independence, which they are not ready for due to the predominant patriarchal upbringing that focuses on family interdependency without considering that their wives may lose their freedom and comfort in family homes.  

“He does not want to move out nor be separated from his family as if he is not yet weaned”, Umm Zahraa complains in her attempt to interpret the reason behind her husband’s refusal to live in a private house. 

Is it better in their separate homes? 

Jannat was free from covering her hair in the family home after her father bought them a separate house ten years later. Sadly, she still has no room of her own, not even a shared one with her younger sisters. 

Another type of restriction is imposed on girls living in their parents’ houses (not extended family homes of in-laws), as their home clothes are still restrictive since they are forced to wear uncomfortable clothes during summer in order to be covered. For instance, they are not allowed to wear cap-sleeved or short-sleeved clothes, calf-length dresses, or pyjamas, and they are required to wear long, loose, thick dresses with linings or slips underneath and long-sleeved vests. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 
 

“I cannot dress freely at home because my father and brothers might see me and it is considered shameful This is what my mother has been telling me since I hit puberty. Whenever my father sees me wearing something he does not like, he tells me to take off those ‘raunchy’ clothes, and he beat me several times”, said Shahd, a sixteen-year-old high school student. 

Shahd’s brothers, like her father, became enraged, blame, and beat her when they saw her wearing home clothing that they considered inappropriate. She continues, “I overheard my parents talking about me, saying that I deserve it because I intend to wear such clothes to appear seductive”. 

Scorpions in the heat 

It was and still is common to sleep on the roof to stay cool due to the lack of electricity and the poor financial situation of many families. However, with the rise of Islamic demands to isolate and cover women in recent years, female family members are excluded from this minor relief from the hot nights in family homes unless segregation conditions are met. These include dividing each family group by sheets, hanging on ropes and secured with bricks at the bottom. Otherwise, daughters-in-law and their adult daughters must sleep inside the house.  

Their situation is difficult, especially if the houses are unventilated, old, or made of cement blocks and tin, as insects and scorpions crawl out on them inside. Women kill the scorpion and then burn it inside so that other hidden scorpions smell it and do not come out.5 

With all this, where should women escape to from the heat in summer? 

*All names in the article are aliases. 

Reem Abd: an Iraqi writer and journalist.