Women in Iraq
Its best if you are seen and not heard today, my mother would say that to me just before we enter the sophisticated parties and get-togethers with my fathers co-workers because I was such a young child and needed to learn everything that I know today about respect, where my place in society is, and how to up-hold that status. In America, children are the only ones who, in public places and are expected to be seen and not heard. The same kind of theory is applied to women in Iraq. They are not to be seen by any strange man, and when seen by men, they are to be fully covered, except their eyes, with an abayah, and not to be heard. The women in Iraq are supposed to stay in the house all day, cook, clean, do the laundry, have kids, and are to be faithful to their husbands, per Guest of the Sheik, An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. In this novel, Fernea talks about the requirements and expectations of a perfect bride, women, and/or wife, and how they act and behave in a village in Iraq.
For most if not all of the women in Iraq, the most important thing to them is their husband. They love him to death, and have never even seen him before the wedding day. The match is most always made between cousins and/or made within the same family. Then the man pays the father of the prospecting bride and they have a marriage ceremony. Laila tells BJ, The grooms smiles meant that indeed everything was all right; the girl was a virgin, the man and his mother were satisfied. (Fernea, 148) When the groom goes to check out the bride, if the groom does not like the bride or she is not a virgin, he has the right to have one of her relatives kill her. The bride is not to eat before the wedding because, She and her husband will have a big meal together. If he is a good man, he will bring her fruit and sweets and sherbet. (Fernea, 139) In this quote, Laila, a friend of BJs is explaining to BJ that is custom for the wife to be not to eat before the ceremony because it is custom to have a huge meal with her husband the first night of marriage and that the bride will know on the first night of marriage if her new husband will be a good one by bringing her fruits and sherbet on their first night together. The brides wear a white dress, and before the wedding sit in their dress on a white covered mat facing a wall, or away from the guests and family. After the ceremony they have a party to celebrate the newly-weds, which included dancing and music. Some men will take on two or even three wives, which is seen as a very respectable and powerful man in that village if he can provide for all of his wives equally and love them equally as well.
There are different customs and traditions that women in Iraq live by. One of them is that Women in Iraq are always covered from head to toe in a black sheet wrapped around them, called an Abayah. This was the only decent way that women were to be seen by men. In the beginning of the novel, BJs husband tells her, My dear B.J., you dont need to wear your abayah in your own private garden. B.J. is unsure of what she can and cannot do when she arrives in the Iraqi village that she is going to be living in and seems to be proving her ignorance in Iraqi customs and traditions. Only when the women went out side their own homes and walls were they expected to wear their abayah and be covered. Another one of the traditions in Iraq is that the women must cook more then enough food for the meals. B.J. learned after the first meal, why there was always more then enough to eat. Fernea writes,
When the old man returned, presumable for the tray, almost creeping to the door this time, he stared in astonishment at the empty plates and then at me. With a heavy sigh, he shouldered the tray and left. It was not until many days later that I learned the Arab custom of serving much more food than they expect you to eat. The leftovers go to women, children, family servants, and to the poor. In my jars I had probably saved several peoples lunches, including the old mans. (Fernea, 18)
In this passage, it is stated that the reason that people are served so much food is because the men usually eat first, and then whatever is left-over goes to the wives, women, children, servants, and the poor. So not only does everyone get fed, but the settlement even takes care of the poor who cannot afford food for themselves. This means that when a women or a group of women cook for a get-together of three to four men, they usually will make and serve enough food for about fifteen to twenty people. Also it is seen as an honor to eat alone at someone elses place when visiting for lunch or dinner. When B.J. goes over to visit the Sheiks three wives, she is taken aback when the lunch table is set for one only. Noticing her shock, the sheiks wives decide to eat lunch with her, so that B.J. doesnt feel so awkward. Another one of the traditions in this Iraqi village is that when a visitor comes to a house they greet them with the best hospitality without worrying about the finances that it might take to provide this hospitality. B.J. states
I knew that whenever I went in the settlement, except perhaps for the houses of the sheik and his brothers, my arrival was bound to put a strain on the familys finances. Their traditional sense of hospitality always struggled with their slim budgets, and usually hospitality won. I would protest vigorously when this happened, but it did no good, for I was only following the accustomed pattern: a guest always protested at the honors done him to show his host how much he appreciated them. (Fernea, 44)
In this passage it explains the financial vs. hospitality dilemma that most of the villagers faced when people came to visit them. Everyone wants to be made to look like a perfect family and offer nothing but the very best to their guests; but unfortunately it is a strain on the financial side of life.
All in all, the women of Iraq are used to these traditions and live long and healthy lives. They wait patiently for a man to marry them, serve him, have his children, and then die loving their husband. They cook a lot, and make friends with other wives in the settlement. They respect their husbands and make as many babies as the family can support. In the end, they are just normal women, just with a little more restrictions then others. And that is what is so surprising for me to learn about, because I had no idea that any of these things went on anywhere. But I had never really looked into the life and times and details of any other country other then my own for the most part. So I was extremely interested to find out how another country and what actually goes on in their day-to-day lives.
Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock. Guests of the Sheik; An Ethnography of an Iraqi
Village. Toronto; Canada. 1965.