“Short Sleeves”: Women’s Respectability is not Defined by How They Dress in Summer 

Zainab Al-Mashat

15 Sep 2023

My late mother used to consider that my clothes were socially unacceptable. Whenever I went through her photo album, I used to ask her, “Why do you comment on the way I dress when you used to wear less conservative clothes, although I dress very modestly compared to the way you used to dress back then?”. “Times have changed”, she would reply. Can women’s respectability be defined by how they dress.

“Your body is different”. This is the response I used to get from my mother whenever I objected to her preventing me from wearing short-sleeved clothes while allowing my sister to so.  

Years later, in the summer of 2016, being conscious of my body, prevented me from wearing a dress that would cool me in the heat of Baghdad. It was a long, easy-to-wear, white cotton dress with blue cross stripes, very light and allowed the air to sneak in. But whenever I wore it, I always fought with the man I loved, as he found it too revealing and that it accentuated my hips. But how?! It was a loose dress that did not show my shape, which made me hate my body even more! 

My plump figure forced me to wear clothes that hid its shape, and if the material of the outfit was light, I had to wear an extra layer underneath to stop it being too revealing, which is a nightmare in summer in Baghdad. 

“Women that wear short sleeves have no shame” 

Many women in Iraq suffer from harsh social views on what they should wear. I spoke to women from different regions in Iraq to find out how they coped with the hardships of the summer heat. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 

Zainab Nasr (thirty-three-year-old), who lives in Al-Sha’ab area, in northeast Baghdad, said she still suffers from this dilemma. “If I go to the mall to buy clothes, I find all the comfortable, good quality cotton clothes are short-sleeved, while clothes designed for veiled women are made of poor material”. Nasr wears the hijab and when she tries to wear breathable summer fabric, she has to wear several layers underneath as it is either too revealing or may cling to parts of her body. 

“The extra layer may add “coverage”, as they say, but I do not know what exactly I am covering. I wear a dress that covers my body and then reinforce it with another. I always wonder why I should cover what is already covered”, she complains. 

In addition to the long-sleeved dresses that women wear, whether they are unveiled like me or veiled like Zeinab Nasr, we also have to wear another layer, meaning extra clothing during the summers when temperatures exceed fifty degrees Celsius. We always try to choose light fabrics, or add a cotton undershirt to convince ourselves that it would be cooler if we wear it under our dresses. But in fact, we wear two layers of garments, making us too hot. 

Women are forbidden, not only from wearing comfortable clothes but also from wearing bright colours that help deflect the sun’s rays. The hot summer requires bright colours, but I was always restricted to wearing dark colours, as bright or cheerful colours are “eye-catching”, I was told. This is why I wear dark colours. I lost my passion for bright colours, and, to this day, I am not good at choosing them. 

Nasr has the same problem, “Whenever I leave the house, either moving around on public transport, attending a government service department, or going to the market, I wear dark clothes to avoid attracting attention”.  

Nasr only wears bright and cheerful colours when going out with her family on special occasions or family visits. “Phosphorescent colours and a short shirt that barely covers (my body shape) is what I wear on family visits or when I go to a restaurant with them. As for a veiled woman, she would need the dreaded extra layer if she wears bright colours. 

Twenty-seven-year-old Shahd Hussein from Basra Governorate says, “One time at university, I wore a white shirt and a sleeveless blouse underneath, during summer. However, everyone criticised me, saying I must wear a long-sleeved blouse under my shirt”. 

We not only find bright colours annoying because they need many layers to hide our bodies, but we also avoid them because some people describe us as “shameless” if we wear them. Thirty-year-old Perriane Ahmad from Sulaymaniyah says, “I was standing next to a colleague once and a girl passed by wearing a cheerful striking colour, then he said, ‘What is that colour she is wearing? Doesn’t she have any shame?’”. 

“Times have changed” 

After the openness brought about by the digital developments that Iraq witnessed after 2003, women tried to keep up with fashion, which does not necessarily mean wearing revealing clothes. Still, we faced much harassment, with some calling us “short-sleeved women”  because we choose clothes that society considers less conservative and do not suit the taste of many, such as short-sleeved shirts or short skirts below the knee. 

Perriane says, “The way I dress is socially acceptable and not revealing, but I avoid going out to any market in Sulaymaniyah in (short-sleeved) clothes to avoid taunters”, she says describing harassers.  

Forty-year-old Hajar Al-Tamimi, an English language teacher in the Falastin Street area in Baghdad, faces the same struggle and describes herself as “free” and “rebellious” only because she wears a (short-sleeved) blouse or jeans. 

I do not consider my clothes revealing. I wear short skirts, jeans and short dresses below the knee. I am not bothered by those who call me a “short-sleeved” woman. However, my late mother considered my clothes socially unacceptable. Whenever I went through her photo album, I always asked her, “Why do you comment on the way I dress when you used to wear less conservative clothes, although I dress very modestly compared to the way you used to dress back then?” 

“Times have changed”, she used to reply. 

Many women repeat the same words. The left-wing civil activist Intisar Jaber says, “When my daughters see my photos, they always ask me why I used to dress the way I wanted to, while I tell them to wear modest clothes when they go out so that they can be so they can comply with current conventions. That is because times have changed”. 

“My mother told me that my dad used to take her to Abu Nuwas Street where women used to wear short skirts or short-sleeved blouses. Today, political parties have exploited religion, cultural sensibilities are absent, and ignorance is prevalent in society. Morals have also changed. My mum’s generation was taught that it was unacceptable to interfere in your neighbour’s life or even look at his daughters. Now, men harass their female cousins in some communities”, says Hajar. 

However, these changing attitudes towards women’s clothing did not begin only in 2003. During the sixties, Intisar and her generation wore mini jupes, short skirts and short-sleeved or sleeveless blouses to keep up with fashion.  

“If you look at the pictures in the seventies, you will find that young women used to wear short-sleeves”, says Lahay Abdul-Hussein, a researcher in Sociology, adding that the seventies of the last century were characterised by modernity and openness. Women kept up with fashion, as harassment was not widespread and their freedom to choose their clothing was not restricted. 

Things changed after the Iran-Iraq War due to the high casualties and the widespread sense of sorrow in society. “Waves of grief and pain prevailed and greatly affected everyone, including women. Then, we entered the years of (international) sanctions, which were way harsher”, says Abdul-Hussein. 

Intisar was an employee in a government department when the Islamic “Faith Campaign” began after the Iran-Iraq War. She recalls the decision that forced women to wear long dresses and skirts, “Short skirts, trousers and short-sleeved blouses were banned and any violations led to punishment”. However, meddling in women’s clothing was not limited to state departments at the time. 

Surrounded by disciplinarians 

Most of the women I spoke to indicated that the mingling of religion and politics after 2003 greatly affected society. Perriane is one of them, “Political Islam and the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran affected our society and imposed restrictions on women in choosing their clothing. Around two years ago, the Kurdistan Islamic Union held a conference where it forced over 100 minor girls, who did not even understand the meaning of hijab, to wear it”. 

Restrictions on what women wear are no longer confined to the state but come from members of society, whether from the woman’s family or strangers, who monitor how she dresses in public. 

When Shahd went to a religious ritual with her friends in one of Basra’s streets, she made sure to wear a long black dress that suited the event and wore a veil over her head, that only partly covered her hair. This minor transgression put her in a very embarrassing situation. “An old man saw me and started shouting in the middle of the street, ‘Don’t you have any shame? Why are you showing your hair? Cover it!’. I do not know what would have happened if my friends were not there, even though I was far from him”, recounts Shahd. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 

A sense of embarrassment and constraint affects women in all of Iraq, regardless of whether they are veiled or unveiled. Hajar, too, had a similar experience when she was taking the bus. “An old woman saw me on the bus wearing a shirt and trousers and told me, ‘Put a shawl or a towel on your head, my girl’. She embarrassed me in front of everyone”. 

Families also restrict what their female members wear, but out of fear for their daughters, as Perriane explains, “My family always asks me if I am sure of my clothing choice before leaving, out of caution and to spare us from ridicule”.  

Broadcaster and programme producer Moustafa (who prefers to only give his first name) agrees with Perriane, but he added that “A man does not mind looking at other women but will not let anyone look at his female family members”. That is why men try to prevent “their” women from wearing clothes that catch other men’s attention. “The main reason for this restriction is to avoid getting blamed because when a man lets his wife or sister wear whatever they want, people accuse him of having no ghira (male zeal)”, Moustafa added. 

Public punishment 

Society’s role is not limited to discipline and imposition but also punishment. When Hajar was a student at the University of Mosul, she went out to the Sargnar market in town with her Turkmen friend, who was wearing leggings. “Men in the market threw nitric acid on the leggings. Fortunately, my friend only had mild burns” says Hajar. 

Sexual harassment is no different from physical assault – like the above-mentioned acid attack – and has become more common. Zainab tells me that on a hot summer day, “a person on a motorcycle touched my bottom while passing, then he drove off. I could not follow him nor call for help, as the street was empty”. 

Perriane was also harassed in her hometown, Sulaymaniyah, because she wore a sleeveless blouse when she was fifteen. “I was wearing a sleeveless blouse and someone touched my breast in the market”.  

The level of threat may also depend on the region, as women’s choice of clothing differs between Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, and Kurdistan. “My family lives in Hillah and, whenever I go there, I always put a veil in my purse to wear once I arrive”, Hajar says. 

Even in Baghdad, women’s freedom to choose their clothing differs from one area to another. Moustafa Al-Jubouri says, “I would allow my mother and sister to wear something in a certain area of Baghdad but I would not allow them to wear the same thing in other areas as they may be subjected to harassment or verbal and even physical assault”. 

The abuse is not always physical but violates the woman’s sense of privacy and her reputation. One evening, Shahd Hussein’s friend was walking in the streets of Basra with her family. She recounts, “Some young men saw her and found her attractive (because of her clothes), so they took pictures and videos of her, which we later found posted on social media”. The girl and her family ignored the incident, but Shahd found it extremely dangerous, “Groups affiliated with religious parties could pose a threat to the girl if they saw these videos”. 

Are we hypocritical? 

“God only exists in Iraq”, Shahd sarcastically repeats the phrase she read on a social media site, which criticised women who dress more freely outside Iraq. “I wear a short dress and remove my veil once I arrive in Kurdistan”. 

Some may consider Hajar and Shahd as hypocritical but the suppression and deprivation of women’s choice of dress, during summer’s heat, give them the right to dress freely elsewhere. Perriane says, in anger, “They have no right to call us hypocrites because dress is a personal choice that I cannot practice in my own country. Thus, I will surely practice it in a country that respects this freedom”. 

This double standard is also practised by men towards their wives. Hajar’s husband (who is now her ex-husband) forced her to wear “extremely modest abayas and gloves. He used to say, ‘Do not think that I am liberal because I used to live abroad. I am indeed close-minded’”. 

However, her husband showed his liberal side whenever they travelled outside Iraq, “Once we arrived at Beirut Airport, he used to tell me to remove the veil and wear whatever I want”. 

As for me, I had my share of this hypocracy and asserted my freedom in all the countries I visited. I wore what I was deprived of: short skirts, short-sleeved blouses, trousers, shorts and even a swimsuit. However, even with such double standards, we still harbour self-censorship within us, even if we are outside Iraq. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 

When I was in the Netherlands in 2019, I liked a jumpsuit. This jumpsuit was very short, and I wished I could wear it in Iraq, but to my despair, I decided to buy it for my eight-year-old niece. Still, I certainly did not stop using two sets of rules regarding my freedom of dress and I suddenly fell in love with my body after the vast amount of criticism it had received from my family because of society. I even realised that my body has no flaws and there is nothing “shameful” about it as my previous boyfriend described it. 

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“Your body is different”. This is the response I used to get from my mother whenever I objected to her preventing me from wearing short-sleeved clothes while allowing my sister to so.  

Years later, in the summer of 2016, being conscious of my body, prevented me from wearing a dress that would cool me in the heat of Baghdad. It was a long, easy-to-wear, white cotton dress with blue cross stripes, very light and allowed the air to sneak in. But whenever I wore it, I always fought with the man I loved, as he found it too revealing and that it accentuated my hips. But how?! It was a loose dress that did not show my shape, which made me hate my body even more! 

My plump figure forced me to wear clothes that hid its shape, and if the material of the outfit was light, I had to wear an extra layer underneath to stop it being too revealing, which is a nightmare in summer in Baghdad. 

“Women that wear short sleeves have no shame” 

Many women in Iraq suffer from harsh social views on what they should wear. I spoke to women from different regions in Iraq to find out how they coped with the hardships of the summer heat. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 

Zainab Nasr (thirty-three-year-old), who lives in Al-Sha’ab area, in northeast Baghdad, said she still suffers from this dilemma. “If I go to the mall to buy clothes, I find all the comfortable, good quality cotton clothes are short-sleeved, while clothes designed for veiled women are made of poor material”. Nasr wears the hijab and when she tries to wear breathable summer fabric, she has to wear several layers underneath as it is either too revealing or may cling to parts of her body. 

“The extra layer may add “coverage”, as they say, but I do not know what exactly I am covering. I wear a dress that covers my body and then reinforce it with another. I always wonder why I should cover what is already covered”, she complains. 

In addition to the long-sleeved dresses that women wear, whether they are unveiled like me or veiled like Zeinab Nasr, we also have to wear another layer, meaning extra clothing during the summers when temperatures exceed fifty degrees Celsius. We always try to choose light fabrics, or add a cotton undershirt to convince ourselves that it would be cooler if we wear it under our dresses. But in fact, we wear two layers of garments, making us too hot. 

Women are forbidden, not only from wearing comfortable clothes but also from wearing bright colours that help deflect the sun’s rays. The hot summer requires bright colours, but I was always restricted to wearing dark colours, as bright or cheerful colours are “eye-catching”, I was told. This is why I wear dark colours. I lost my passion for bright colours, and, to this day, I am not good at choosing them. 

Nasr has the same problem, “Whenever I leave the house, either moving around on public transport, attending a government service department, or going to the market, I wear dark clothes to avoid attracting attention”.  

Nasr only wears bright and cheerful colours when going out with her family on special occasions or family visits. “Phosphorescent colours and a short shirt that barely covers (my body shape) is what I wear on family visits or when I go to a restaurant with them. As for a veiled woman, she would need the dreaded extra layer if she wears bright colours. 

Twenty-seven-year-old Shahd Hussein from Basra Governorate says, “One time at university, I wore a white shirt and a sleeveless blouse underneath, during summer. However, everyone criticised me, saying I must wear a long-sleeved blouse under my shirt”. 

We not only find bright colours annoying because they need many layers to hide our bodies, but we also avoid them because some people describe us as “shameless” if we wear them. Thirty-year-old Perriane Ahmad from Sulaymaniyah says, “I was standing next to a colleague once and a girl passed by wearing a cheerful striking colour, then he said, ‘What is that colour she is wearing? Doesn’t she have any shame?’”. 

“Times have changed” 

After the openness brought about by the digital developments that Iraq witnessed after 2003, women tried to keep up with fashion, which does not necessarily mean wearing revealing clothes. Still, we faced much harassment, with some calling us “short-sleeved women”  because we choose clothes that society considers less conservative and do not suit the taste of many, such as short-sleeved shirts or short skirts below the knee. 

Perriane says, “The way I dress is socially acceptable and not revealing, but I avoid going out to any market in Sulaymaniyah in (short-sleeved) clothes to avoid taunters”, she says describing harassers.  

Forty-year-old Hajar Al-Tamimi, an English language teacher in the Falastin Street area in Baghdad, faces the same struggle and describes herself as “free” and “rebellious” only because she wears a (short-sleeved) blouse or jeans. 

I do not consider my clothes revealing. I wear short skirts, jeans and short dresses below the knee. I am not bothered by those who call me a “short-sleeved” woman. However, my late mother considered my clothes socially unacceptable. Whenever I went through her photo album, I always asked her, “Why do you comment on the way I dress when you used to wear less conservative clothes, although I dress very modestly compared to the way you used to dress back then?” 

“Times have changed”, she used to reply. 

Many women repeat the same words. The left-wing civil activist Intisar Jaber says, “When my daughters see my photos, they always ask me why I used to dress the way I wanted to, while I tell them to wear modest clothes when they go out so that they can be so they can comply with current conventions. That is because times have changed”. 

“My mother told me that my dad used to take her to Abu Nuwas Street where women used to wear short skirts or short-sleeved blouses. Today, political parties have exploited religion, cultural sensibilities are absent, and ignorance is prevalent in society. Morals have also changed. My mum’s generation was taught that it was unacceptable to interfere in your neighbour’s life or even look at his daughters. Now, men harass their female cousins in some communities”, says Hajar. 

However, these changing attitudes towards women’s clothing did not begin only in 2003. During the sixties, Intisar and her generation wore mini jupes, short skirts and short-sleeved or sleeveless blouses to keep up with fashion.  

“If you look at the pictures in the seventies, you will find that young women used to wear short-sleeves”, says Lahay Abdul-Hussein, a researcher in Sociology, adding that the seventies of the last century were characterised by modernity and openness. Women kept up with fashion, as harassment was not widespread and their freedom to choose their clothing was not restricted. 

Things changed after the Iran-Iraq War due to the high casualties and the widespread sense of sorrow in society. “Waves of grief and pain prevailed and greatly affected everyone, including women. Then, we entered the years of (international) sanctions, which were way harsher”, says Abdul-Hussein. 

Intisar was an employee in a government department when the Islamic “Faith Campaign” began after the Iran-Iraq War. She recalls the decision that forced women to wear long dresses and skirts, “Short skirts, trousers and short-sleeved blouses were banned and any violations led to punishment”. However, meddling in women’s clothing was not limited to state departments at the time. 

Surrounded by disciplinarians 

Most of the women I spoke to indicated that the mingling of religion and politics after 2003 greatly affected society. Perriane is one of them, “Political Islam and the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran affected our society and imposed restrictions on women in choosing their clothing. Around two years ago, the Kurdistan Islamic Union held a conference where it forced over 100 minor girls, who did not even understand the meaning of hijab, to wear it”. 

Restrictions on what women wear are no longer confined to the state but come from members of society, whether from the woman’s family or strangers, who monitor how she dresses in public. 

When Shahd went to a religious ritual with her friends in one of Basra’s streets, she made sure to wear a long black dress that suited the event and wore a veil over her head, that only partly covered her hair. This minor transgression put her in a very embarrassing situation. “An old man saw me and started shouting in the middle of the street, ‘Don’t you have any shame? Why are you showing your hair? Cover it!’. I do not know what would have happened if my friends were not there, even though I was far from him”, recounts Shahd. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 

A sense of embarrassment and constraint affects women in all of Iraq, regardless of whether they are veiled or unveiled. Hajar, too, had a similar experience when she was taking the bus. “An old woman saw me on the bus wearing a shirt and trousers and told me, ‘Put a shawl or a towel on your head, my girl’. She embarrassed me in front of everyone”. 

Families also restrict what their female members wear, but out of fear for their daughters, as Perriane explains, “My family always asks me if I am sure of my clothing choice before leaving, out of caution and to spare us from ridicule”.  

Broadcaster and programme producer Moustafa (who prefers to only give his first name) agrees with Perriane, but he added that “A man does not mind looking at other women but will not let anyone look at his female family members”. That is why men try to prevent “their” women from wearing clothes that catch other men’s attention. “The main reason for this restriction is to avoid getting blamed because when a man lets his wife or sister wear whatever they want, people accuse him of having no ghira (male zeal)”, Moustafa added. 

Public punishment 

Society’s role is not limited to discipline and imposition but also punishment. When Hajar was a student at the University of Mosul, she went out to the Sargnar market in town with her Turkmen friend, who was wearing leggings. “Men in the market threw nitric acid on the leggings. Fortunately, my friend only had mild burns” says Hajar. 

Sexual harassment is no different from physical assault – like the above-mentioned acid attack – and has become more common. Zainab tells me that on a hot summer day, “a person on a motorcycle touched my bottom while passing, then he drove off. I could not follow him nor call for help, as the street was empty”. 

Perriane was also harassed in her hometown, Sulaymaniyah, because she wore a sleeveless blouse when she was fifteen. “I was wearing a sleeveless blouse and someone touched my breast in the market”.  

The level of threat may also depend on the region, as women’s choice of clothing differs between Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, and Kurdistan. “My family lives in Hillah and, whenever I go there, I always put a veil in my purse to wear once I arrive”, Hajar says. 

Even in Baghdad, women’s freedom to choose their clothing differs from one area to another. Moustafa Al-Jubouri says, “I would allow my mother and sister to wear something in a certain area of Baghdad but I would not allow them to wear the same thing in other areas as they may be subjected to harassment or verbal and even physical assault”. 

The abuse is not always physical but violates the woman’s sense of privacy and her reputation. One evening, Shahd Hussein’s friend was walking in the streets of Basra with her family. She recounts, “Some young men saw her and found her attractive (because of her clothes), so they took pictures and videos of her, which we later found posted on social media”. The girl and her family ignored the incident, but Shahd found it extremely dangerous, “Groups affiliated with religious parties could pose a threat to the girl if they saw these videos”. 

Are we hypocritical? 

“God only exists in Iraq”, Shahd sarcastically repeats the phrase she read on a social media site, which criticised women who dress more freely outside Iraq. “I wear a short dress and remove my veil once I arrive in Kurdistan”. 

Some may consider Hajar and Shahd as hypocritical but the suppression and deprivation of women’s choice of dress, during summer’s heat, give them the right to dress freely elsewhere. Perriane says, in anger, “They have no right to call us hypocrites because dress is a personal choice that I cannot practice in my own country. Thus, I will surely practice it in a country that respects this freedom”. 

This double standard is also practised by men towards their wives. Hajar’s husband (who is now her ex-husband) forced her to wear “extremely modest abayas and gloves. He used to say, ‘Do not think that I am liberal because I used to live abroad. I am indeed close-minded’”. 

However, her husband showed his liberal side whenever they travelled outside Iraq, “Once we arrived at Beirut Airport, he used to tell me to remove the veil and wear whatever I want”. 

As for me, I had my share of this hypocracy and asserted my freedom in all the countries I visited. I wore what I was deprived of: short skirts, short-sleeved blouses, trousers, shorts and even a swimsuit. However, even with such double standards, we still harbour self-censorship within us, even if we are outside Iraq. 

Artwork by Mays Al-Saray 

When I was in the Netherlands in 2019, I liked a jumpsuit. This jumpsuit was very short, and I wished I could wear it in Iraq, but to my despair, I decided to buy it for my eight-year-old niece. Still, I certainly did not stop using two sets of rules regarding my freedom of dress and I suddenly fell in love with my body after the vast amount of criticism it had received from my family because of society. I even realised that my body has no flaws and there is nothing “shameful” about it as my previous boyfriend described it.