“From Burqas to Beauty Queens”: Inside Iraq’s Booming Beauty Indsutry

In a country scarred by decades of war and unrest, beauty centers across Iraq are opening their doors to men and women exercising a renewed sense of freedom and empowerment post-conflict. From lip fillers and Botox to breast implants and liposuction, cosmetic treatment is becoming increasingly popular and accessible, attracting many young Iraqis to go under the knife.

Amid the devastation of the city of Mosul, parts of which remain in ruins, several beauty centres have appeared in the aftermath of the bloody battle against ISIS, which controlled the city from June 2014 until their defeat in July 2017. Home to a culturally and religiously conservative society, such centres are an entirely new feature of the city’s war-torn streets. “Now it’s become a trend for young women,” says Bashar Alani, Manager of the Shahrazad Beauty Center in East Mosul, which opened in June 2018. “Having beauty treatment is not just acceptable in society now, it’s becoming a trend.”

While this trend may be perceived by some as a positive step towards more liberal views and greater empowerment of women, others fear the industry is encouraging and normalising the objectification of women. Humanitarian activist and Kurdish popstar Dashni Morad argues that the predominantly male-run beauty industry in Iraq is not an entirely positive development, warning that women are being pressured and manipulated to undergo invasive cosmetic procedures in the hope of achieving an artificial idea of beauty promoted by men. “Women are again putting themselves in the hands of those who have in the past imprisoned them,” she says. “It’s coming out of the burqa or the headscarf and going into the surgery. From burqas to beauty queens you could say.”

Largely imported from other Middle Eastern countries – Lebanon in particular – the mass displacement caused by ISIS since 2014 may have contributed to the advancement of the beauty industry in Iraq through the spread of ideas brought back by those displaced to neighbouring countries. “Those people interacted with other cultures in Kurdistan and Turkey and other countries,” explains Alani. “When they came back to Mosul, they brought with them new ideas and cultures they’d experienced.”

With approximately 13 customers per day, most of whom are women, Alani believes the industry’s new found popularity in Iraq is testament to the greater liberties enjoyed by women post-ISIS. “There are no negative points to it (the beauty industry),” he says. “It means we are moving forward, and we have opened ourselves to a bigger world.” Since the liberation of Mosul, women and men have become more open-minded and enjoy more freedom to express themselves than ever before explains Alani. “Before ISIS there was Al Qaeda, which was also fighting against these kinds of centers,” he says. “Now that they and ISIS have gone, businessmen are investing in them.”

Despite the industry’s recent growth and apparently increasing acceptance, beauty queens, activists and social media influencers have nonetheless been the target of organised attacks and assassinations. In 2018, four influential Iraqi women were murdered, including Tara Fares, a social media star who was shot and killed in Baghdad at the age of 22. “We’re literally suffocating here as activists,” says Morad. “We are under pressure not only from war but also from politics, culture and religion, and it has taken a toll on our personal lives and on our health. But we continue to give whatever we have. I don’t know how long it will be until most of us are banished or killed or die from poor health.”

The role of men in promoting and marketing the highly profitable industry has also come under scrutiny, raising concerns that women are being put under pressure to alter their appearance by powerful media and advertising campaigns. “We are raised with the idea that we are worth less than men,” says Morad. “What is actually happening is that in a male-dominated society where our media is completely led by men, they have put us in a certain corner where if we come out of the house and into the media and become influencers, we have to be objectified and sexualized. I want to show that you can still get fame and recognition for your art without doing any facial surgery, without any of these male led rules of a woman’s beauty.”

While women in Iraq continue to fight for greater equality and more opportunities to play an active role in society and the development of their communities, Morad worries that the space women have created is being exploited.“We have not fought for a century for women to have space in society to study, and not to be forced into marrying at a young age just for them to become Barbie dolls,” says Morad. “I’m also scared about how it has become so normalized here, and I’m afraid that in five years ninety percent of the women here will have done something to change their face and body. If we don’t do something about this, we will go from empowering women to objectifying them.”

Thirty-one-year-old mother of two Saja receives Plasma Skin Tightening treatment at the Shahrazad Beauty Center in East Mosul, which opened in June 2018.

During ISIS occupation of the city, Saja and her family remained in Mosul. “It was as if we were dead when ISIS was here,” she says. “We were like dead people but alive.” During the battle to liberate the city, Saja’s home was hit by an airstrike. “It was a miracle we survived,” she explains. “Our house fell down over our heads during liberation because it was hit, but we walked out of it. We survived.”

Dr. Alyaa Saadoon treats a patient at the Shahrazad Beauty Center in Mosul. “I feel happy when I see the results of my work,” she says. “For example, I have some young women who are about to get divorced because of their looks and because their husband is not satisfied with how they look. After my treatment they reconcile and get back together because they can see the results. I have 5 couples who were about to be divorced, then they came here and since I am a doctor they spoke to me freely and now they are back together and they didn’t get divorced.”  

A mother of six originally from Baghdad, Dr. Alyaa Saadoon moved to Mosul a year ago when she was offered a job at the Shahrazad Beauty Center. She now treats around 50 to 60 patients per month, some of whom receive treatment for scars from shrapnel wounds they sustained during the war against ISIS.

The Shahrazad Beauty Center is located inside a shopping mall in the bustling Zuhoor neighbourhood of East Mosul.

Receptionists are pictured at the Shahrazad Beauty Center in East Mosul.

On the western bank of the river Tigris, the Al Maidan neighbourhood of West Mosul lies in ruins after heavy bombardment during the final phase of the battle to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIS control. “Even though we have seen a lot of conflict here and we still see a lot of destroyed buildings, people are starting to improve themselves because life must go on,” says Bashar Alani, Manager of Shahrazad Beauty Center in East Mosul. “Just because we can see the buildings are destroyed it doesn’t mean we have to stop the movement of life; we have to carry on and work on making things better.”

The ruins of once beautiful homes in Al Maidan neighbourhood of Mosul’s Old City. The area was heavily bombed during the battle against ISIS.

The Astera Beauty Center in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, which opened in August 2018 and is the largest center of its kind in Iraq.

Sahar, a regular customer at the Astera Beauty Center in Erbil, receives lip filler treatment. “I first visited the beauty center two years ago,” she says. “I was inspired to seek beauty treatment to change my lips – when I started filling them they became more sexy.” Sahar believes there is increasing pressure on women in Iraq to alter their appearance in pursuit of a perceived standard beauty promoted in the media, by advertising campaigns, social media, and family, and above all, to please their husbands.

Thirty-two-year-old Dr. Ammar is pictured in his office at the Astera Beauty Center in Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Originally from Anbar province in western Iraq, Dr. Ammar studied Aesthetic Medicine at the American Academy of Aesthetic Medicine in Dubai. “I really like this work,” he says. “Everyone likes to look good and to be more beautiful and it makes me feel good to make people look and feel better.” Dr. Ammar believes the beauty industry is growing in all areas of the Middle East and the world as a result of advances in technology for cosmetic treatment, what he describes as a “revolution in beauty.” “In 2013, I remember there were no machines for beauty,” he explains, “but now if you go to any beauty center you will find machines for everything. There are updates all the time in this field, and all companies now are improving and advancing.

An Iraqi man undergoes liposuction surgery at the Astera Beauty Center in Erbil. “We have many patients who are men,” says Dr. Ammar, who frequently performs liposuction treatment. “Men usually come for Botox and laser hair removal. For liposuction we have more men than women.”

Liposuction is a popular cosmetic treatment worldwide, especially in the US, despite studies showing the lack of efficacy in maintaining long-term fat reduction. According to Healthline, one study shows that one year after liposuction, participants had the same amount of body fat they had prior to the procedure, albeit redistributed to other parts of the body.

Beauty queen Yarjan is pictured at the 2018 Kurdistan Fashion Week in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Activist and beauty icon Dashni Morad believes that social media plays a role in the rapid rise in women undergoing invasive beauty treatments. “(Social media) influencers keep pushing forward by changing their face,” says Morad, “and I know they are influenced and pressured by men to do this; it’s become business for them to sell this.”

Dashni Morad, Kurdish humanitarian activist, artist and founder of Green Kids, is pictured at a Kurdistan independence demonstration in Erbil in October 2017. Morad says she’s worried about how beauty treatment has become normalised in Iraq, with women under increasing pressure to look a certain way. “As women here we seek outer beauty because that’s our door to money, to success, to fame, to our dreams,” she says. “We’ve gone from strong female fighters to dolls. I don’t feel like a human anymore as a woman – we’re dolls, we’re dolled up everyday.”