Farah al-Jaberi protests the security practice of male soldiers doing x-ray scans of her body. (Photo: Corey Flintoff / NPR)
A conservatively dressed Iraqi matron holding a provocative sign and a picture of a naked woman stood against the dusty concrete blast wall outside the main checkpoint where Iraqi workers enter and leave Baghdad's Green Zone.
It's almost impossible for us, as Americans, to grasp just how shocking this was. First, you have to consider that for Farah al-Jaberi, an observant Muslim woman, conservative attire doesn't mean a tailored pantsuit; it means full hijab: a headscarf that conceals her hair and throat, topped by a head-to-foot abaya, a black drapery that's designed to obscure any hint of a womanly shape underneath.
That this lady would be holding up a picture in public that revealed, well, every feature of a woman's shape, was striking to say the least. Jaberi explained that she was protesting her treatment while going through the various security checkpoints on the way to her job at the Iraqi parliament building.
Because the Green Zone is the location of the Baghdad Convention Center, where Iraq's parliament meets, as well as the U.S. Embassy, security is exceptionally tight. Workers who enter on foot must pass through seven or more different checkpoints before they reach the Convention Center.
People often have to wait in long lines to have their bags searched, their bodies patted down, their bodies scanned by an electronic imaging machine, their bags sniffed by dogs, and their identification cards examined.
It was the scan that Jaberi particularly objected to, because, she said, guards are essentially able to see a woman naked as she stands in the scanning booth. The picture she displayed actually looks like a naked female alien, blue-tinted and bald, because the scanner doesn't see hair or clothing. What it sees is the body itself, plus the dark outline of any jewelry or, presumably, any concealed weapon.
The fact that a woman in hijab can conceal so much is a matter of real concern to security officials, especially lately, as the number of attacks by female suicide bombers in Iraq has grown.
Jaberi said that she and other Muslim women who pass through the checkpoints understand the need for security.
"We're not terrorists, and we care about our safety. We don't want our offices to be blown up," she said.
She said female employees don't object to having their bags examined, or to being patted down by female guards in curtained booths that are set aside for that purpose.
What they do object to, she said, is going through a scan where their bodies can be seen by male guards or where images of their bodies can be saved and viewed by anyone later.
Jaberi said she believed that she and other women had won their point in May, when officials agreed that women would not have to go through the scanner but could be searched separately and privately by female guards. She said that was the procedure for a couple of weeks until a new American soldier came on guard at the checkpoint and insisted that she had to go through the scanner. When she refused, Jaberi said the soldier took her aside, shouted at her and threatened to call the police. When she told him to go ahead and call, Jaberi says the soldier pointed his gun at her.
That's when, she said, she turned back from the checkpoint, went home and inscribed her protest sign, which says in Arabic: "From the American to the [female] Parliament employee - either no clothes, or the American prisons."
All this happened in early June. Reached recently by telephone at her workplace, Jaberi said her protest lasted a couple of hours. Eventually, she said, officials came out and told her that she would not have to go through the scanner.
That's the way it has been for the past month, she said, and parliamentary authorities have recently opened a separate gate for women. Iraqi officials said the incident Jaberi was protesting is still under investigation. And she said she's still waiting for an apology.