Iraq Table of Contents
Public transportation in Baghdad
Courtesy Mokhless Al-Hariri
Kinship groups are the fundamental social units, regulating many activities that in Westernized societies are the functions of political, economic, religious, or neighborhood groups. Rights and obligations center on the extended family and the lineage. The family remains the primary focus of loyalty; and it is in this context, rather than the broader one of corporate loyalties defined by sectarian, ethnic, or economic considerations, that the majority of Iraqis find the common denominators of their everyday lives. A mutually protective attitude among relatives is taken as a matter of course. Relatives tend to be preferred as business partners since they are believed to be more reliable than persons over whom one does not have the hold of kinship ties. On higher levels, deeply ingrained family loyalty manifests itself in business and public life.
The characteristic form of family organization involves a large group of kinsmen related to one another through descent and marriage, that is, an extended family usually consisting of three generations. Such an extended family may all live together, which is the more traditional pattern, or may reside separately like a nuclear family, but still share the values and functions of an extended family, such as depending upon one another and deferring to the older generation. As Iraqi society has become increasingly urbanized, however, the tendency toward nuclear family social organization, as opposed merely to residence, has become more prevalent. The status of an individual is traditionally determined by the position of his or her family in society and the individual's position within that group. The family transmits values and standards of behavior of the society to its members and holds them responsible for each other's conduct. It traditionally determines occupations and selects marriage partners. Kinsmen also cooperate in economic endeavors, such as farming or trade, and ownership in land and other assets frequently is vested in the group as a whole. The sharpest degree of divergence from these patterns occurs among educated urban Iraqis, an ever-increasing proportion of the society.
Until 1959 family life was subject to regulation only according to religious law and tradition. All Muslims were brought under a single body of family law for the first time in 1959 with the enactment of a secular law on personal status, based on sharia, statutes from other Islamic countries, and legal precedents established in Iraqi courts; a brief amendment was enacted in 1963. The law spells out provisions governing the right to contract marriage, the nature of the contract, economic rights of the partners, divorce and child custody, as well as bequests and inheritance.
The basic structural unit of the family consists of a senior couple, their sons, the sons' wives and children, and unmarried daughters. Other dependent relatives may also be attached to the group. The senior male is the head of the family; he manages its properties and has the final voice in decisions. Kinsmen are organized into still larger groups. The next level of organization is the lineage, composed of all persons, male and female, who trace their descent from a common ancestor. The number of generations by which this ancestor is removed from the oldest living one varies; a depth of four to six generations is usual.
Individuals or whole families of other descent sometimes attach themselves to a particular lineage in an arrangement of mutual advantage, becoming recognized after several generations as full members of the lineage on equal terms with those born into it. In small villages everyone is likely to belong to the same lineage; in larger ones there may be two or more lineages in common but tempered by economic cooperation, intermarriage, and the authority of the village leadership or elders. Also among nontribal Iraqis, kinship organization and traditions of common descent do not go beyond the lineage. Awareness of distant ties is keen among recent migrants to the cities and among the rural population.
In rural areas, new households are not usually set up until many years after the initial recognition of a marriage. In general, the wife moves in with her husband's parents, where the young couple remain for some time. Often this arrangement is maintained until the death of the father. Even when the father dies, the brothers sometimes stay together, forming joint family households that include themselves, their wives, and their children.
The actual number of persons who make up the household is determined by the family's economic circumstances, pattern of living, and mode of habitation. In an agricultural setting, as long as ownership of land and other possessions is vested in the family as a whole, the possibilities for a young man to set up an independent household are limited. In urban centers, on the other hand, young men can avail themselves of wage-earning employment.
Authority within the family is determined by seniority and sex. The father, in theory, has absolute authority over the activities of the members of the household, both within the confines of the house and outside. He 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. These authority patterns also have been greatly weakened in the urban environment and by the shift of more and more responsibilities from the family to larger social institutions, such as the schools.
An even greater change in the traditional pattern of male dominance has been brought about by the war. Because Iraq is numerically a much smaller nation than Iran, it has experienced considerable difficulty maintaining an adequate defense on the battlefront. To field a sufficient force it has had to draw down the available labor pool on the home front, and to compensate has mobilized women. In the mid-1980s, observers reported that in many ministries the overwhelming proportion of employees were women. Foreign contractors have encountered women supervisors on huge construction projects, women doctors in the hospitals, and even women performing law enforcement roles. This emancipation-- extraordinary for an Arab country--was sanctioned by the government, which expended a significant amount of propaganda publicizing the role of women in helping to win the war. The government further maintained that after the war women would be encouraged to retain their newfound work roles; this was doubtful, however, because in the same breath the government declared its determination to increase the birthrate.
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. 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.
With regard to marriage and divorce, the 1959 Law of Personal Status, amended in 1963, liberalized various provisions that affected the status of women; in practice, however, the Iraqi judiciary up to the Revolution tended to be conservative in applying the provisions of the law. Specifically, Iraqi law required that divorce proceedings be initiated in a court of law, but the husband still had the controlling role in dissolving the marriage. Moreover, a man who wanted to marry a second wife was required first to get approval from the court. Provision was also made for the custody of children to be based on consideration of the welfare of the child.
Economic motivation and considerations of prestige and family strength all contribute to the high value placed on large families. The greater the number of children, especially sons, the greater the prestige of the father, and through him 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.
Between the ages of three and six, children are given freedom to learn by imitating older siblings. Strong emphasis is then placed on conformity with elders' patterns and on loyalty and obedience. Family solidarity is stressed. The passage from adolescence to maturity is swift. Upon reaching puberty, there traditionally is a separation of sexes, and girls are excluded from male society except that of their close kin. Great emphasis is placed on premarital chastity, and this is one reason for early marriages. Boys have greater freedom during adolescence than girls and begin to be drawn into the company of their fathers and the world of men.
Data as of May 1988
Iraq Table of Contents