Published on Tuesday, March 29, 2005 by the Guardian/UK
Female Students in Fear as Shias Push for Headscarves
by Rory Carroll
Female students strolled in the balmy spring afternoon through the grounds of the humanities faculty at Baghdad University yesterday oblivious to the watching man in black.
"There is a fire inside me when I see them. You could throw ice into my chest and still you would not cool it down," said Thi al-Faqar Jassim, 25, his eyes following women with uncovered heads.
He did not know who they were but knew what they were: flouters of his strict version of Shia Islam. "It is not right, they should wear the headscarf."
Mr Jassim, a third-year student of physical education, spoke not just for himself but for the conservative Shias who hope to transform the university and, eventually, Iraq.
After decades of oppression the Shia majority is now in the ascendant and free to express its version of Islam. More than a dozen cultural and religious associations have bloomed on the campus in the past year. Female students say the incidence of intimidation by classmates connected to Shia parties and militias is increasing.
"We are afraid of them," said Bashaer, 20, a chemistry student, who declined to give her surname. The university authorities were wary of intervening, she said, and her friends feared a repetition of a recent incident in Basra when militiamen attacked and reportedly killed at least two students who played music and flirted at an "immoral" picnic.
The education minister, Sami al-Mudafar, told the Guardian that students and professors were supposed to keep their religious and political beliefs outside the classroom.
Dr Mudafar is an independent, moderate member of the Shia bloc which won the most seats in the national assembly in the January elections, with the tacit backing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husaini al-Sistani. Many senior figures in the bloc have Iranian links and want to write a new constitution guided by Islamic sharia law, although they have promised to respect religious freedom and human rights.
But secular factions inside and outside the alliance have delayed the formation of a government partly, they say, because they are worried that religious intolerance will grow unless Shia clerics are reined in. Since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein two years ago, much of southern Iraq has been ruled by cleric-backed Shias who closed shops selling alcohol and pressured women to cover their heads.
Unlike the insurgency, which is largely driven by Sunnis, the challenge from radical Shias is mostly non-violent, but it makes many Iraqis nervous.
Baghdad University, the country's intellectual engine, is one of the battlegrounds. Yesterday the campus was relaxed. Male and female students mingled in the sunshine drinking Pepsi and eating crisps. Most men wore jeans, most women wore skirts and blouses. About half had heads uncovered. Mr Jassim, a member of the Mehdi Army, the militia of the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, hoped that would soon change.
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