Hairdressers, barbers, cosmetologists, and manicurists have always served as confidantes for their customers. They are the keepers of untold secrets. But in post-war Mosul, a city freed from the grip of so-called Islamic State in January 2017 and still struggling to recover, the hair salon is more important than ever.
In the absence of much in the way of mental health services, the salon has transformed into an unofficial group therapy session, one of the few places where women can gather among themselves to process the collective trauma of three years of terror.
Hanen starts her day in the east Mosul salon where she works by taking off her headscarf, putting her dyed honey-coloured hair up in a businesslike ponytail, and slipping on a white coat.
Her three daughters run around the salon – the youngest holds up an Iraqi flag that she knitted at home and poses for photos – while Hanen chats quietly with her first customer, trading the occasional joke with the hairstylist next to her.
Some days are like today, Hanen says, full of laughter and ease, women chatting while they wait for hair dye to develop under thin foil flaps. Other days, though, the entire salon is in tears.
There were only 80 clinical psychologists working in all of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan as of January 2017, according to official figures. Organisations like Save the Children, the International Organization for Migration, Médecins Sans Frontières, and UN agencies fill some of the gap, and provide trauma treatment. However, their efforts are limited by both funding and the sheer scope of trauma in a city that has been through both an IS occupation and war.
“Many women come and tell us their stories, their lives,” Hanen says. “Every woman who comes, talks about her life, about her story, about her situation under IS, and during the period of liberation.”
Life under IS
IS first came into the city offering promises of relief from what many saw as a repressive central government in Baghdad – but the group quickly instituted tight restrictions of its own.
Loudspeakers blasted public announcements instructing women to cover their faces. Women were required to wear black abayas (long, loose robes), cover their hands in gloves and their feet with socks. Being caught with just your eyes showing meant fines or whipping.
Beauty salons were out of the question. But just because they were banned did not mean women stopped doing their hair.
“During the siege, they would say, ‘this is forbidden, this is forbidden, this is forbidden’,” says Hanen, who owned her own salon for 13 years. After IS took control of Mosul in 2014 she moved the business underground, running it in secret from her east Mosul apartment. Her customers found her by word of mouth.
Even the wives of IS fighters would come to the salon to get their hair done, Hanen says, recalling cutting their hair with gritted teeth. “It was truly hard,” she says, “But if I didn't do their hair, they would report me.” The consequences of being reported could be dire.
“The first thing they would do is open the house, they would break down the door, they would take the head of the house or the owner of the salon. They would kill her. Anything was possible... That was the reason we kept it secret,” explains Hanen.
Dealing with the trauma
Ali al-Rassam, the director of al-Messala, a UN-affiliated women’s centre for psychological and social services, says there is a serious lack of mental health services for those who have lived under IS or fled its terror.
“Mosul has not seen anything as hard as this war before. This is the first time we have seen something this [traumatic],” says al-Rassam. “The government in Mosul does not have a programme to deal with the trauma.”
Hanen lost her home and her salon to bombing. “They were destroyed,” she says. In the final months of the battle she and her family sheltered in a neighbour’s basement with 84 other people for two weeks while IS patrolled the streets and bombs rained down around them. They did not have enough food to go around, so to eat they made soup out of tahina paste and water. When Hanen celebrated her youngest daughter’s birthday in the basement, she was not able to feed her.
Her experience was far from exceptional. Everyone in Mosul has been personally affected by the occupation or the war that followed. Many women retreated to their homes and barely went out in public for years. Countless others lost family or friends, either to IS or to the heavy bombing of the nine-month war to banish IS from the city.
Al-Rassam says most public hospitals do not even have a psychologist on staff. “I was surprised. I was only able to find one doctor who treats psychological problems in all of the hospitals for both men and women. I don't know, they could have just one doctor to treat that number of people – it's impossible of course.”
He says that at al-Mesalla, which has six branches open throughout Mosul, women will sometimes come from as far as five kilometres away to get their services – simply because there is nothing else available in their neighbourhoods.
A place to share stories
Even with IS defeated, billboards in Mosul still show remnants of the years when pictures of the female face were forbidden: images of headless women, their bodies floating eerily under a cloud of black paint.
But the walls of the east Mosul salon where Hanen works are covered with pictures of models with shiny hair and bright white smiles, and the logo is a silhouette of a woman smiling ever so slightly, her face in full view.
The salon chair transformed under the militants’ control, Hanen says. Before IS, chat between hairdresser and customer was full of complaints about everyday life and family. During the occupation, conversation was fearful and stilted. And now, the chair is a place of sometimes heartbreaking honesty as women share their stories, of their losses, of forced marriages, of trauma.
“We cry with her,” Hanen says of these moments. “We comfort her, we try to heal her psychologically as much as we can, we tell her that pain… [fades] with time.”
Roua, a middle-aged woman getting brown and blonde streaks in her hair, says the first thing she felt entering the salon was “trust in the place and the people”. She says she comes at least once month, and not just to keep up her highlights. “The salon is necessary. For women to continue, they need it. Women must have it.”
One key reason that salons have stepped up to help patrons deal with their trauma is that they are women-only.
Mosul is fairly conservative, and many cafés are the domain of men. When women do go out, they are usually with family or friends. The salon is one of the only places where women can decompress publicly without the gaze or presence of men.
The back of the salon has an electric stove top where they cook and share food. Children come in and immediately adapt into the fabric of the salon.
Janan, the owner of the salon, says business is booming. “Right after we opened the salon, after IS, and started to advertise it openly, everyone came,” she says. For many women, being able to freely cut and dye their hair took on new meaning after the city’s liberation.
“It was important. As the years passed, people loved the field of beautification in a big way,” Janan says. “There was always fear. Now, there isn't fear.”
For Hanen, going back to work has brought her deep satisfaction, even in the aftermath of horror. She says the salon is more than work for her, it is a passion. “I love it,” Hanen says, “Even if I had the chance to leave, I would not leave this salon.”
*Names have been changed
(TOP PHOTO: A woman enters a Mosul salon. Pesha Magid/IRIN)