In the 1950s, a newly married American woman named Elizabeth Warnock Fernea accompanied her husband to a rural Iraqi village, El Nahra, where he was performing field research for his doctorate in anthropology. The adjustment for her was profound, because she lived in a mud hut with no indoor plumbing, didn’t speak the local language, and found it advisable to wear the veil in order to fit in with the local conservative Islamic community. Under the advice of friends, Fernea transformed her journal into Guests of the Sheik, which covers the day-to-day life of the women in the tribe, the process of slowly making friends with them as she learned their language, and the local Shiite religious observances that she shared in. She talks about the veiling of women, the hard manual labour that is part of everyone’s life, the religious customs, the food that people eat, the structure of society, and, most importantly, the many different aspects of family life. Familial groups are the fundamental social units, regulating many activities that, in Westernized societies are the functions of political, economic, religious, or neighbourhood groups.
In Iraq, personal rights and obligations centre on the extended family and lineage. The extended family is the “basic social unit” (pg 160). A mutually protective attitude among relatives is taken as important. The father, brother, and sons are responsible for the care of women. They see to it that she has an adequate home, meals, clothing, etc. There is always a chance of a man taking on a second or third wife, as in the case of Sheik Hamid, who had three wives. With polygamous marriages, all the wives have a status in the family and will be taken care of by their respective children and a network of relatives associated with the husband. The father or eldest male, in theory, has absolute authority over the activities of the members of the household, both within the confines of the house and outside. Each time Laila wanted to go somewhere with Beeja (Elizabeth), she pressed Beeja to ask Mr Bob (Beeja’s husband) for permission if they could go, then Laila’s father would let her go.
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The father also decides what education his children will receive, what occupations his sons will enter, and, usually in consultation with his wife, whom his children will marry. The Muslim majority has traditionally regarded marriage as primarily a civil contract between two families, arranged by parents after negotiations, which may be prolonged and conducted by an intermediary. The arrangement of a marriage is a family matter in which the needs and position of the corporate kin group are primary considerations. Prospective partners are often known to each other, and they frequently come from the same village and the same kin group. The preferred marriage is between first cousins (usually on the father’s side) in order to keep the gene pool preserved for generations to come. In small villages everyone is likely to belong to the same lineage; in larger ones, economic cooperation, intermarriage, and the authority of the village elders connect two or more lineages.
After Beeja and her husband left El Nahra, many marriages took place, all within familial lines; Sheik Hamid’s daughter to his nephew and Sheik Hamid’s son to his niece (pg. 333). Among educated urban dwellers, the traditional pattern of contracting marriage is giving way to a pattern in which the young persons make their own choices, but parents must still approve. Jabbar, the tribal irrigation engineer, did not want to marry into his family. He wanted to marry an educated girl with modern ideas, one who would help him in modernizing Iraq. To aid him in his quest, he turned to old college friends. He soon was introduced to a suitable mate and their marriage was agreed upon by both sets of parents (p 283-286). Economic motivation and considerations of prestige and family strength all contribute to the high value placed on large families. Essentially, the more children one has, especially sons, the greater the prestige of the father, and that of the family as a whole.
Boys are especially welcome because they are the carriers of the family tradition, and because their economic contribution in an agricultural society is greater than that of girls. Moussa, brother of Sheik Hamid, who had six daughters and no sons, was looked down upon among the townspeople. He had no one to carry on his legacy, no one to help him with the labour. Fernea’s journal account of her stay in the small Iraqi town is an intriguing account of the day-to-day life of the women in the tribe. She had to work very hard to be accepted into the social order of the tribe. Once she began to understand the inner workings of the social circle, her time was up. In the two years she spent in El Nahra, she became accustomed to their language, the local religious customs, how to wear the veil, the labour that is part of a woman’s life, the food that people eat, the structure of society, and, most importantly, the many different and confusing aspects of Iraqi family life.
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