In the heart of Baghdad, as the clock strikes two in the morning, a taxi pulls up in front of an undistinguished residential building on Saadoun Street. The skies are lit by the flash of thunder, as the relentless April rain showers the city. Our protagonist, whom we will call Mona, a pseudonym she prefers, takes a moment before entering her dwelling, shooing away a lurking rat before disappearing into the shadowy entrance of her apartment building.

During the day, Mona can be found working tirelessly at a café tucked away in Karada neighbourhood in Baghdad. Her tasks range from serving drinks to preparing hookahs, her shift spanning from the late afternoon until the wee hours of the morning. Despite the long hours and arduous work, Mona confesses that she’s not content with her job. Also, she pragmatically admits that “happiness doesn’t cover the rent.

Her identification card, which she holds tightly, reveals that she recently turned thirty, a milestone she met with a certain trepidation. For in Iraq, opportunities for marriage seem to diminish as a woman enters her thirties, according to Mona. “Marriage is an evaporating dream,” Mona discloses, her voice heavy with disappointment, “especially for women in my line of work.” This sentiment closes her hopes of having a husband to share the responsibility of providing for her and her ageing mother.

In Mona’s eyes, her perspective on marriage is tinged with a palpable pessimism, a sentiment that many say is rooted in societal norms. A woman working in a café, she explains, is often seen as unsuitable for marriage (even if her honour remains unscathed). This is a stigma Mona and many others face daily.

Baghdad’s café culture is evolving, with women taking a more visible role in the industry. An increasing number of modern cafés are employing women for their service, often focusing on those with an appealing appearance. The sight of women working in such environments, while previously unusual, has become more common in recent years, echoing global trends.

Despite the societal scepticism surrounding female café workers, their numbers continue to swell, a testament to the growing opportunities this line of work offers. Mohammed Al-Baghdadi, owner of one of the capital’s bustling cafes, highlights the role women play in his business. Their presence, he believes, acts as a “customer magnet,“contributing significantly to the café’s success. “Three girls work in our café,” he shares, “They alternate shifts, serving customers and managing orders.” He emphasises that they are treated with the same respect and kindness as their male counterparts, attributing their  their acceptance and success to their hard work and dedication..

The challenging economic reality in Iraq is a powerful force pushing many young women towards service work, especially as café waitresses. In most instances, their selection of this profession is a reluctant one, more often imposed by the absence of an alternative source of family income. It’s a sobering reality that the majority of thesecafé hostesses are either single, divorced, or widowed.

According to an on-the-ground investigation titled “The Lives of Female Café Workers: Attraction, Exploitation, and Resilience”,  which collected data from 50 female employees in cafés located in Baghdad’s Karkh and Rusafa areas, 46% of these women had never been married. Additionally, the study revealed that 32% were divorced, 14% were widows, while only a mere 8% were currently married.

The investigation, led by social scientist Widian Yasin, discovered that a majority of these café employees fell within the age bracket of 20 to 25 years. Half of them were found to shoulder the responsibility of providing for a family of five, and the majority had experienced the loss of their fathers.

The increasing trend of young women turning to employment in cafés can be seen as a reflection of the broader lack of employment opportunities coupled with the rampant unemployment among the youth. This profession, while not traditionally sought after, is experiencing an influx of young men and women driven by economic necessity.

Working in cafés should not be viewed as a dishonourable profession for women. However, the tribal societal norms prevalent in Iraq are less accepting of this line of work for women, labelling it as abnormal,” notes sociologist Ibtisam Al-Shammari, the head of Women for Supporting Women association WSW, in an interview with The Red Line.

Perhaps most alarming are the establishments that function as a portal into illegal activities linked to prostitution and illicit trafficking. These places take advantage of young women, who, driven by dire need and poverty, find themselves ensnared in a perilous underworld. Al-Shammari attributes the young women’s inclination towards this line of work to a deficiency in upbringing, stating, “If they were raised well, they would not have committed these mistakes.”

Several anecdotal accounts in Iraq also shed light on other factors contributing to this trend, including exposure to domestic violence or sexual harassment within the family, which drives many young women to flee from home and seek employment in such establishments. . 

Having lived in a single-room accommodation adjacent to the café she works at for the past two years, Sarah’s story is a poignant example of this unfortunate trend. The young lady escaped from her home in a southern province village following her mother’s death, having been subjected to various forms of domestic abuse at the hands of her father and his new wife.

Sarah has been toiling at the café for the past two years, earning less than her colleagues because the café doubles as her living quarters which she has to pay rent for. Commenting on this situation, Al-Shammari suggests that the government should take initiative by setting up shelters or care homes. These could act as safe havens for girls fleeing their homes for any reason, providing a better alternative than places that monetize their vulnerability. However, she notes with regret the general societal misperception of such centres as being disreputable and disconnected from societal norms.

Tragically, these care homes have also been places of violence, as Al-Shammari recounts an incident where a girl seeking refuge was killed by her own family members. Highlighting the urgency of the situation, Al-Shammari appeals to the government to create jobs for young men and women, offering them a variety of activities and employment to prevent their diversion into perilous sectors.

Further underlining society’s resistance to the idea of women working in cafés is a directive issued by the Wasit Province Council in 2017. The ruling, which prohibited women from working in cafés across the province, described such employment as being at odds with societal acceptance.

Working in a café doesn’t just compromise marital prospects; it can even cost a mother custody of her child. As evidenced in a case where a café worker who had faced divorce was denied custody rights to her child, with the Court of Cassation ruling in favour of the husband. The woman’s employment in a nighttime café led the court to consider her as unfit for child custody.

However, the judgement of removing a mother’s custody rights based on her café job is seen as subjective and not intrinsically linked to the nature of the job itself. As legal expert Adnan Al-Sharifi argues, a women losing a trial because of her job type shouldn’t set a precedent, since the right to work is guaranteed by labour law without any gender bias.

Finally, Al-Sharifi stresses that the acceptability of such jobs is conditional on their nature. Lawfully, working in a café is not a criminal act, and there are many places with fine reputation.. However, if the job involves exploitative practices or the objectification of women to attract customers, it transgresses the boundaries of “public decency”.

As outlined by Iraqi legislation, a woman engaged in activities considered to contravene public norms is viewed as unfit for child nurturing. Additionally, when a woman devotes many hours to work, leaving her child unattended at home – particularly when the child is within the tender age bracket of five to eight years – the child is subjected to potential dangers, thus qualifying the woman as an unfit custodian for the child.

To illustrate this conundrum, Sharifi recounts the situations of two divorced women with children who work in the same café. The first entrusts her child to her mother while she works for extended hours, whereas the second leaves her child unsupervised. Sharifi asserts, “While the first woman will face no repercussions, the second is liable to lose custody due to her endangering her child.”

Persistently, women in Iraq grapple with substantial societal constraints. In the face of prevailing traditional norms and customs, a significant portion of women are stripped of their rights to choose their partners, pursue further education, or take up employment. This often ensnares them in immensely challenging familial and psychological circumstances, at times pushing them to escape their household in pursuit of an improved livelihood.

Crimes termed as “honour crimes” stand out as some of the most heinous transgressions against women, wherein a woman risks being killed by her relatives if found involved with a man beyond the boundaries of marriage. Due to extensive tampering with cases, official figures for “honour crimes” in Iraq remain absent. This interference typically manifests in altering the cause of death in legal medical death certificates. Regrettably, a considerable number of lawsuits are concluded at the security centres prior to being directed to the judiciary.

From time to time, discussions arise questioning some parts of the 1969 Iraqi Penal Code. One such issue relates to the lenient sentencing for “honour crimes,” often reduced to a few months of imprisonment. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, referencing the Iraqi Penal Code, has noted its lighter punishments for “honour crimes” and has criticised such provisions for their ongoing discriminatory impact on Iraqi women. They recommend that Iraq review and update its national laws to abolish or alter provisions that perpetuate violence against women.

In conclusion, the complexities of the social, legal, and economic circumstances surrounding women working in cafes in Iraq unveil a broader crisis. A crisis that encompasses issues of gender inequality, socio-economic class, personal security, and women’s rights. The experiences of these women highlight the urgent need for societal reform, ranging from improved employment opportunities for both genders to the provision of safe shelters for women in distress.

Moreover, the absence of laws protecting women in these circumstances and the prevailing honour crimes culture vividly underline the dire need for legal reform. Addressing this urgently requires revising laws that serve to maintain harmful traditions rather than protecting the rights of women, and implementing new regulations that can provide protection and support for the women who need it most.

VIANabaa Mushreq, Sam Mahmood, Mohammed Shiaa ALZAIDAWI