By Marwa Sabah
BAGHDAD, IRAQ, Dec 13, 2008 (AFP) - The last time Manal Hakim was in the driving seat, she was pistol-whipped by armed Islamists. Two years later, the 38-year-old Iraqi teacher is behind the wheel again, but now with a smile on her face.
"I was parked near a service station in Baghdad when five masked gunmen told me to get out of the car and began beating me up in front of everyone. Nobody did a thing to stop them," she told AFP.
"They insulted me, and shouted at me never to drive a car again because it was 'haram'," or forbidden under Islam for women to drive, said the mother of one.
"They said they'd kill me if I did it again.
I was totally shocked." She locked her car away in the garage of her home in the Sunni Amriah area of western Baghdad.
There were no restrictions on women in the Iraqi capital driving under the secular rule of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, but that all changed in the wake of the US-led invasion of the country in March 2003.
Now with improved security in the city since the end of last year and the expulsion by police and the Iraqi army of Islamist militias that held both Sunni Islam and Shiite quarters in their violent grip, women feel more relaxed.
"It's true that today you can see women drivers again," said Hakim, who wears a headscarf. "Since the security situation got better I'm driving again, and I certainly feel more free."
According to a study by the United Nations and Iraqi statistics bureau, women are the head of the family in 12 percent of Baghdad homes, and therefore need to drive.
- "It's an absolute necessity for women to drive" -
One family in three has a car, and this city of at least seven million residents currently has 750,000 vehicles registered, Baghdad mayor Saber al-Issawi said.
At a driving school in the swish Mansur quarter, Shaymaa Ibrahim is getting ready for her driving lesson. The unmarried 40-year-old is wearing black pants and a pink T-shirt.
"I'm a teacher, and it was such a hassle having to take taxis all the time," she said. "I was scared to drive because the Islamists couldn't bear to see us behind the steering wheel.
"Learning to drive is good for me, and makes me feel better about being able to fend for myself."
Between 2005 and 2008, Islamist militants, both Sunni and Shiite, clamped down on anything they deemed to be un-Islamic - also "haram" were music, make-up, hairdressing for both sexes, and uncovered hair.
In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, women were officially banned from driving. Sadiq Jaburi heads the Iraq Automobile and Touring Association and runs one of the largest driving schools in Baghdad. He has seen marked changes and confirms that the number of women drivers is again on the rise.
"This year the number of women learner drivers has really gone up. In 2008, our people have taught 43 men and 100 women, against 43 men and one woman in 2006, and a single man in 2006," the worst year for rampant sectarian killing.
Jaburi, whose organisation is affiliated to the Paris-based Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), said that even with a general improvement in security not all districts of the capital are completely safe.
"When we give driving lessons, we choose areas close to the association, generally main roads, in order not to endanger the lives of the learners - especially the women," he said.
Hanna Salman, 40, wears an Islamic dress and has a green veil, but her religious convictions are certainly not going to prevent her from learning to drive.
"Modern life means it's an absolute necessity for women to drive, and learning is easy. I have two children, and I want to be able to drive them to school now the situation permits it," she said.