Gender, Family, & an Iraqi Ethnography

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Elizabeth Fernea had to completely immerse herself within an Iraqi village. I was surprised and delighted by how she willingly agreed to spend her “honeymoon” in a strange place, surround by strange people. I use the word strange because that’s how she felt going into it. It was different and unfamiliar. As she describes in the first chapter, it was uncomfortable being outside your own culture.

When she is in Bagdad she refuses the abayah (Fernea, 1965). Understandably, pride is the reason for declining. As an American woman she doesn’t feel she has to hide her face or feel ashamed to be a woman. However, as soon as she arrives in Diwaniya, the first village, she immediately regrets not taking an abayah from the woman who offered to make her one in Bagdad. She feels like she stands out, and actually does because everyone is staring at her, all the women wear abayahs, and she is noticeably different. She wishes she had the “comforting anonymity” of the abayah (Fernea, 1965).

Her interactions with Bob on the train illustrate her fears. He asks her why she is so quiet when they spent so much time preparing for this trip and now the trip is a reality. She answers she is excited but lets us know she is scared to. Bob assured her the women would be friendly at first, as it is the Arabic custom, but she wonders how they will be after that. She is nervous about staying in the village long term. But, she also knows she must help Bob with the fieldwork. She will have more access to the women and children than he will (Fernea, 1965).

Fernea’s fieldwork in Iraq would be shocking. The culture shock would be overwhelming, as the first chapter describes her anxiety and reluctance to fully immerse her being in the culture. She regrets agreeing to go with Bob right away. I can imagine feeling the same way. A married, American woman, excited about my new life with my husband, only to be riddled with fear and doubt about living in a vastly different culture in an unknown land. The prospect is terrifying. It’s clear from Fernea’s descriptions she is no different.

Area A: What did you learn about the people of Iraq?

Gender is clearly an issue in Fernea’s account of her stay in Iraq. The women of Iraq are treated differently than women in America - although Saudi women are now allowed to drive. There are certain rules women have to follow, and Fernea doesn’t mind breaking them at first, but then realizes she needs to respect the culture. The tribesmen of the village say that a woman without an abayah is an immoral woman. “An uncovered woman is an immoral woman,” they say, and that is the common attitude amongst the men (Fernea, 1965). The women of Iraq have almost no choice but to wear an abayah, and cover their faces, or risk losing their husband’s respect and be shamed. More tribesman are quoted as saying, “Why would a woman show off to anyone but their husband?” It seems that women are meant for their husband’s eyes only and must keep themselves covered before all other men.

There is a scene in the first chapter where Fernea’s abayah slips off her head. There are many Iraqi men surrounding her and watching her when this happens. They are almost completely shocked, she writes, and can’t help themselves from staring in awe (Fernea, 1965). Even though she was a foreigner in the village and the natural subject of interest, the men could not handle themselves when seeing an uncovered woman. It was a rare, forbidden event and mesmerized the men of the village.

When Fernea interacts with Mohammed, the boy servant, he will do whatever she asks. However, he does not want her to tell anyone that he does “women’s work,” like washing the dishes (Fernea, 1965). In this country there are clear lines between what a man should do and what a woman should. You don’t cross those lines. The same way a woman can’t show her face to a man, a man can’t be seen or heard of doing the dishes. He will bring shame upon himself if the village finds out he is doing a woman’s work. This simply can’t happen.

The gender roles in Iraq are clearly defined. From Fernea’s observations, we see that men do certain things and women do certain things. In many ways, it seems women are subservient to the men of the village. When Fernea goes to the Shiak’s house in chapter two, the women of the village assume Fernea’s mother isn’t with her because her husband wouldn’t let her come (1965). This shows the power and control the men have over the women of the village, as everything a woman does must be accepted, approved, or commanded by the man.

I learned that gender plays a crucial role in various societies and cultures. There are certain things women do, and certain things men do. The women are expected to act a certain way and serve their husbands. I found it incredible that women are forbidden to be seen by any man but their husband. Imagine if only husbands could look upon their wives in America. It is a ridiculous notion. I learned that culture plays a very important role in gender relationships, roles, and attitudes.

Topic 2: Kinship Systems and Family

The best example of how kinship structures the daily lives of the people in the village is the scene where Fernea and her husband go to the Sheik’s house. As the two walk over to the Sheik’s part of the village, Bob asks Fernea to find out all she can from the women. In the two month’s he’s been there, he’s heard nothing about the women or children (Fernea, 1965). This leads me to believe that the kinship structure is very rigid where the men do the business and the women and children remain inside and out of sight.

This is also showed in how the women and children live in separate quarters. This would explain why someone like Bob, who’s met with the Sheik before, has never encountered or heard anything about the women and children. By living in separate quarters, the daily lives of the women and children are removed from the daily life of the Sheik. The women and children share their own space and keep out of the way.

Another important aspect of kinship structure is the fact that the Sheik has multiple wives. Selma, who is described as the Sheik’s favorite wife, has a lot of power over the rest of the women and children (Fernea, 1965). She tells them to be quiet and to keep in line. The children listen to her, respect her, and look up to her.

When Fernea visits Mohammed’s family the kinship structure is slightly different. It isn’t like the Sheik’s family, where the Sheik rules over everyone in the family and the women and children are kept separate. Some of the men in Mohammed’s family have left or gone bad, and this forces the women to live more on their own and take care of themselves. Shefia, a sister, sells eggs and lamb meat and wool to help keep the family alive and Iraqi children well-nourished (Fernea, 1965).

A different structure suggests that the women and children don’t have to just live separate and follow the orders of the Sheik, but that they can actually take of and support themselves. The future of having multiple wives and so many children dependent on the Sheik may not be as promising as having people take care and learn for themselves.

Topic 3: Being an ethnographer

Fernea is a good writer and a decent ethnographer. Her reluctance at the beginning is normal for an ordinary person, but if you’re doing ethnography you simply have to try your best to move past those feelings of dread and anxiety. She did a nice job of overcoming those feelings, but she started off as if the trip would be a walk in the park, instead of adequately preparing, like taking the abayah that was offered to her in Bagdad.

Her greatest strength is her writing and descriptions of events. You really get a sense about where she is and how she feels during the narrative. She is proud when she’s able to communicate with Mohammed for the first time in her hut (Fernea, 1965). Being able to describe and tell the story of an ethnography is very important.

Her greatest weakness as an ethnographer is putting too much of herself before the work. A good ethnographer experiences and studies the culture with an unreserved objectivity. She needs to distance herself and emotions from the people. This isn’t to say she can’t be herself, but she should be more scientific and objective, and understand what the social norms are. For example, when Selma asks her if she thinks she is beautiful, Fernea is nervous doesn’t know how to respond.

It would be incredibly difficult to repair the house and get used to the village and communicate with Mohammed that first day. Bob has to go out for something, and leaves Fernea by herself – on the first day! She looks up at the roof and notices there are bird nests. Bob says that he wants her to make repairs and fix everything up. Throw this in with having to communicate with Mohammed and figure out what supplies they, plus having no one to talk to that speaks English. This would be terrifying and extremely difficult. However, she did a great job adjusting.

Unlike Fernea, I don’t think I could do this kind of work. To be out there in a strange land, and constantly feel uncomfortable and different, would be too much to bear. She had Bob, but Bob was often preoccupied, and she was thrown into situations where she had to fend for herself. She is a very brave woman, who did something I would definitely struggle to do. It’s hard enough to go to unfamiliar social situations in your own culture. It is very hard to think of doing that same thing, but in a totally different culture where so much is different.


Fernea, E. W. (1965). Guests of the Sheik: An ethnography of an Iraqi village (Anchor Books ed.). New York: Doubleday.