In Iraq, to Be a Hairstylist Is to Risk Death

Times Staff Writer

A bomb rips through a women’s hair salon, shattering wall-length mirrors and shredding posters of coiffures.

In another neighborhood, gunmen fire wildly into a busy barbershop, killing the owner and three teenage boys waiting for haircuts.

At yet another shop, a masked visitor presses a note into the palm of a horrified haircutter. The message: “Our swords are thriving for the neck of barbers.”

Iraq’s insurgency has long targeted local police, government leaders and national guardsmen as a means of destabilizing the nascent democracy, but now guerrillas have taken aim at a far more unlikely line of work.

In what some describe as a Taliban-like effort to impose a militant Islamic aesthetic, extremists have been warning Iraqi barbers not to violate strict Islamic teachings by trimming or removing men’s beards. Giving Western-style haircuts or removing hair in an “effeminate” manner, they say, are crimes punishable by death.


“They went to all the barbers,” said one threatened hairstylist, Ali Mahmood, 28. “They told them not to shave beards. They told them no sideburns. No American styles. They told them none of this or they would die.”

Since the threats began a little more than a month ago, at least eight barbers have been killed, and a dozen shops have been bombed, colleagues and police say.

The attacks underscore the religious debate roiling Iraq in the turbulent post-Saddam Hussein era. Although last month’s election was designed to lead to a new transitional government, the question of whether Iraq will be a secular state -- as it was under Hussein -- or an Islamic republic remains unanswered. What direction the nation will take is a central issue for the drafters of the nation’s new constitution.

But as the insurgency continues, religious fundamentalism has become entwined with opposition to the U.S. presence. Mosques have become gathering places, weapons-storage depots and recruiting grounds for the guerrillas.

New recruits are often told they are defending Islam from the infidels, U.S. commanders say. Tales of U.S. troops ripping up Korans and defiling mosques have stoked anti-U.S. sentiment. The number of suicide bombers who volunteer to become martyrs attests to the effectiveness of the religious call to battle.

Barbers were not the first to be targeted when Islamic fundamentalism, repressed under Hussein’s regime, extended its grip. Militants have bombed many liquor stores run by Christians, and killed their owners. In other cases, women who weren’t wearing veils or other clothing deemed proper under strict Islamic law have been threatened and physically attacked.

Among the first barbers to be victimized was Abu Ahmed, 42, owner of the Sheik Barbershop in southwest Baghdad. About a month ago, two strangers entered his shop with their faces wrapped in scarves and berated the haircutter for shaving beards. They also chastised him for practicing a relatively painless method of hair removal called khite, in which a twisted thread is used to catch hairs on the cheek or eyebrows and pull them out by the roots.

Ahmed ignored the warnings and continued to trim beards and remove hairs using khite, colleagues said. That is until earlier this month, when he was found splayed over his bicycle, bullets lodged in his head and neck. He remains near death in a Baghdad hospital.

Word of the attacks and continuing threats have struck panic among barbers and hairstylists. Many are quitting their jobs, or are cutting hair for select clients in the secrecy of their homes. Some have hung signs in their shop windows proclaiming, “Dear Customers, we are sorry, but we cannot shave your beard by blade.”

The extremists’ threats are often delivered on paper fliers, or scrawled on the backs of 250- dinar bills. The 250-dinar denomination represents the cost of one bullet, barbers say.

Um Omar, a 40-year-old hairstylist in Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni Muslim Jihad neighborhood, quit the business last month when a bomb tore through her Al Shahad beauty salon and killed two neighbors. Fortunately for Omar, she was home when the attack occurred.

“I used to say to myself that this sabotage would not reach Jihad neighborhood, and you can see how ironic this is -- my shop was the first to be blown up,” she said.

The violence has occurred primarily in Baghdad’s southern and southwestern suburbs, where many suspected Fallouja-based fighters fled during the fall campaign by U.S. forces to retake the city, a rebel stronghold.

Last year, when insurgents controlled Fallouja, they imposed a harsh, Taliban brand of Islamic law. Beauty parlors were shut down, men were ordered to grow beards, and barbers were forbidden to cut them. Shopkeepers who sold liquor were flogged in public.

Although many barbers and customers blame Islamic extremists for the threats and violence, some authorities question the attackers’ real intentions.

“I don’t think these incidents have anything to do with extremism,” said Iraqi Police Lt. Col. Asaad Mohammed. “It is more of a ploy to instigate instability.”

For Iraqi men, a closely cropped head of hair is as much a hallmark of masculinity as a well-groomed mustache, and an industrious barber can earn good money. Now some say it is too risky.

“They give me a piece of paper telling me I will be beheaded if I shave the customer’s neck with a blade or if I will remove hair by threads,” lamented barber Karam Mowafaq, 27. “I felt more secure during Saddam’s time than now. People are threatening my life just for doing my job. I used to make more than 50,000 dinars a day [about $40], but now I make less than 10,000.”

Mahmood, the 28-year-old who was threatened, has quit cutting hair after eight years and now works as an armed bodyguard for Western clients. He considers his new job less dangerous than cutting hair.

“It is unsafe because customers will ask [barbers] to do the things we are threatened for,” Mahmood said. “It’s a losing job. It’s unsafe and it’s dangerous.”

Special correspondents Caesar Ahmed, Zainab Hussein and Said Rifai in Baghdad contributed to this report.