BAGHDAD — Leali Kamel's back in business as a hair stylist, two years after religious extremists ran her out of Ramadi, her hometown.
The extremists believe women shouldn't be seen by men other than their husbands and shouldn't change their appearance. Kamel's salon was a forbidden vocation. Kamel fled to Syria.
Those extremist views are in retreat now as Iraq comes back to life with an overall improvement in security, despite the shocks of last week's massive explosions outside two Baghdad government ministries.
Kamel's biggest concern as she reestablishes her clientele centers on keeping up with new fashion, not hiding her work from thugs who'd harm her.
"Women in Ramadi want a new look," Kamel, 39, explained recently as she massaged a thickening cream into the shoulder-length locks of a young woman at a Baghdad beauty salon and school.
Indeed, styles have changed for Iraqi women. They can see a world of glittery actresses and heartthrob singers on dozens of Arabic satellite television channels, a view to the outside world that Saddam Hussein never allowed them.
"Iraqi women want to have what they see, to be on the same level that a man can see out of Iraq," said Ahmed Morad, a famous Baghdad stylist who's reopening his salon.
Glossy posters of models whipping back lush hair look out from his beauty salon's windows. He wears tight jeans to work, and lets his longish-hair hang over his ears. Women who work at the shop cover their own hair, but with stylish scarves.
Their customers chat around an oval-shaped table, trading gossip and choosing their styles.
"Sometimes I come to salons just for the gossip, but if I see a woman do something, I'll do it," said Miad Khalad, 30, who drops by beauty centers two or three times a month.
"I love myself and I like to make my shape different and beautiful," she said.
Her younger sister, Zayneb Khalad, joined her at Morad's salon last week. "I just want to wake up in the morning to see that I'm beautiful to feel comfortable," said Zayned Khalab, 19.
During the past few years, Morad confined his work Istanbul in Turkey and to a secure compound that serves Baghdad's elite. He longed to take his skills back out to average Iraqis, but couldn't out of fear that he and his employees would become targets.
"I cannot stand staying away from Iraq because I am Iraqi," said the 29-year-old stylist who took over his business from his father, Karim Morad.
Bodies were dumped at his salon's doorstep repeatedly before he closed it in 2007. Suad al Hashemi, 39, one of his assistants, received a death threat.
"They knew many things about me, as if they were living with me," she said. She also fled to Syria, returning only five months ago when friends and family cajoled her with promises that security had improved.
"I feel comfortable," she said. "Life was destroyed. Now it's very good. I'm happy to be here again."
The stylists say they're earning a very good living these days. Women at Morad's salon often rack up $400 bills between hair colorings, skin treatments, manicures and massages. Some of the customers pool their resources, taking turns to get in Morad's chair.
In many cases, only husbands and families will see the full effect of Morad's work because most, though not all, Iraqi women wear head scarves in public. Still, the intended audience appreciates the work, one of Morad's assistants said.
"The satellite channels are always showing these beautiful ladies and the men are always looking for beauty," said Niran Ali, 32, a skin specialist. "The wives want to change just to be like what their husbands see."
(Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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