Iraq Cultural Profile

Background

  • Iraq can be geographically divided into four zones: the Syrian Desert area in the west and southwest, the upland between the upper Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the mountainous areas in the north and northeast, and the river valleys of the central and southeast areas.
  • For centuries, the population of Iraq consisted almost entirely of settled farmers in the river areas.
  • These traditional ways of life have all been altered in the last century by several factors, including the gradual filtering into the society of Western thought and politics, the influx of foreigners in connection with the discovery and processing of oil, and the migration of segments of the population from rural to urban centers.
  • There have been many changes in government and in society brought about by the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein, the effects of the long Iran–Iraq war, the effects of the invasion of Kuwait, Desert Storm, and the associated embargoes, and most recently the US invasion in 2003.
  • Refugees have fled Iraq for different reasons, many stemming from persecution related to the various conflicts in the country. After the US became involved in Iraq, the Special Immigrant Visa program opened to Iraqis who aided the US military in some way, granting them the opportunity to resettle in America. That program closed in 2013, but World Relief Modesto resettled our last refugee through the SIV program in Iraq in 2015.

Culture and Religion

  • The people who live in Iraq include a number of ethnic groups, physical types, and languages. According to 2014 estimates, the total population of Iraq is 32.5 million, with 75-80% Arabs, 15-20% Kurdish, and the remaining 5% comprised of different groups, including Turkoman, Assyrian, and Armenian.
  • In Iraqi society, there are effectively three classes: the higher class, composed of well-known, influential families; the middle class, composed of government employees, prosperous merchants, the military, and so on; and the lower class, comprising the peasants and laborers.
  • 95% of Iraquis are Musilm, and Islam is a very powerful social force
  • Marriage is expected of everyone. Children belong to their father’s family, and he is automatically awarded custody in divorce cases.
  • The extended family is important socially and politically, and controls one’s social status. It is virtually impossible to rise socially because the status of ones family is unchangeable.
  • Individual behavior is very much constrained by the desire not to bring shame on the family.
  • Traditional Arab homes are very private, and usually consist of a man, his wife and children, mother (if she is still living) and any unmarried sisters.
  • Polygamy is allowed in Islam, although it is a possibility available only to the wealthier members of society.
  • From a western point of view, Arab women appear to be dominated and repressed. Consequently, the status of women has become controversial in Muslim society today.
  • Iraq is one of the more progressive Muslim countries, women have been able to pursue careers and maintain a family. Public dress is less restricting.
  • Education has always been available to women of the upper classes.
  • Financial power is in the hands of the men, although women exercise great power over the home and the children.
  • Many Iraqi marriages are arranged.

Adjusting to Life in America

  • Most Iraqis are familiar with Western dress and will have no trouble adapting, although they might be scandalized at the amount of flesh we bare in the summer.
  • Most educated Iraqis will have at least a limited ability to speak English, although it might turn out that they read much more than they can say or understand.
  • Cross-gender platonic friendships almost never occur in Iraqi society: just about any friendly overture on the part of an American woman to an Iraqi man will be interpreted as a sexual or romantic advance. The situation is further confusing as the young men observe American couples expressing affection in public, which is never done in Arab society.
  • Arab refugees might be puzzled at our American customs involving the necessity of invitations and giving notice before we visit. An Iraqi family might issue a general invitation, not realizing that they must pin down a specific time and place, then sit at home socially isolated and lonely, wondering why Americans are so unsociable.
  • Hospitality is cherished tradition, to the point that Iraqis might insist on paying, even when it is spending more than they can afford.
  • Some of the refugees, particularly those from rural areas, might be confused by the number of Americans who do not follow a religion and are vocal about not believing in God, yet are well-behaved, accepted members of society.