New American Series: Iraqi Cultural Differences

New Americans Series

We are finishing a series on the five largest ethnic groups to be resettled to Sioux Falls in the last five years by the Center for New Americans.  Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories. 

New American Series: Iraqis

Cultural Differences

When I met Ehsan, an Iraqi refugee who was resettled to the U.S. eight months ago, I smiled and extended my hand for a customary, American handshake and said “Nice to meet you.”  Ehsan smiled in return, kept his hand at his side and said, “I’m sorry. It is against my religion to shake a foreign woman’s hand.”  My first thought was “Oops! Oh, Kadie! Duh!” My second thought was “I am talking to the right man for a blog about cultural differences.”  What I actually said was “Can we talk about that more, Ehsan?” And thus began an hour and half discussion about Islam and cultural differences—mostly centered on issues concerning women—and current events in Iraq.

The vast majority of Iraq’s Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen populations are Muslims.  Thus, the daily behaviors observed in Iraq often reflect Islamic beliefs and customs.  The Cultural Backgrounder published by the Cultural Orientation Resource Center on Iraqi Refugees writes that “Although an individual Iraqi might not adhere strictly to all of its beliefs and practices, Islam is and has always been a very powerful social force in the country.”[i] During our interview, Ehsan made many references to the Koran, when giving reasons for certain behaviors or cultural differences.  “According to the Koran…where it explains in detail….”was a phrase I heard often.  “Muhammad’s divine revelations have been collected in the Koran, and this, along with his sayings and records of his personal conduct—the Hadith—form the basis for a code of behavior that is relatively standard across the Muslim world, despite local variations.”[ii]  Previously in July, LSS Center for New Americans blogged about Ramadan and the Pillars of Islam here, which consist of the five basic teachings concerning everyday Muslim behavior.  Some other well-known Islamic customs include the abstaining from pork and alcohol and offering a generous hospitality. “Hospitality is a cherished Islamic tradition, and anyone who has lived in a Muslim county has a store of personal experiences of hospitality extended freely without any expectation of return.”[iii]

Ehsan explained his inability to shake “a foreign woman’s hand” as part of Islam’s teachings on women and purity.  He emphasized that it was not because I was of another faith, but because I was a woman outside of his family.  The Cultural Backgrounder explains “at the heart of the treatment of women is the belief in a man’s honor and the honor of his family.  Protection of women is a central tenet of Islamic society, and both men and women believe it to be necessary.  Behavior that looks like repression to Westerners is often viewed by Arab women as evidence that they are loved and valued.”[iv] The Cultural Backgrounder shared further that “dignity, honor, and reputation are also values highly esteemed by Iraqis.  In Muslim society, there is a much greater difference between public and private behavior than in Western societies.”[v]  Iraqi women, in comparison to other Middle Eastern countries, have historically enjoyed greater freedom.  “It should be noted that Iraqi women generally enjoyed greater freedom than women elsewhere in the Middle East: They have had jobs, enjoyed educational opportunities, occupied high public office, and traveled unveiled.  While there is nothing in the new Iraqi constitution that prevents women from enjoying these freedoms and opportunities today, many neighborhoods are now controlled by religious militias or jihadi groups who demand that women confine themselves to their homes.”[vi]

I asked Ehsan how Islamic beliefs affected women who went to hospitals and had male physicians or translators in the United States.  He shared that members of his own family and friends had shared a need for more female interpreters, telling him “We are shy to talk to male translators.  We want female.”  In the case of female doctors, Ehsan said that the women in his family would prefer a female doctor, but women are allowed to see male physicians.

This discussion led me to ask Ehsan about the differences in dress between non-Islamic American women and women who practice Islam, who I observed as often covering their heads and necks.  Ehsan shared that many differences existed and that further differences existed between Iraqi women who were resettled to the United States and Iraqi women still in Iraq. The Cultural Backgrounder gave this explanation about Iraqi dress:

The Arab concept of honor explains, in part, a woman’s covering up in public, which can be seen as a means of shielding her from the view and attentions of strange men.  Iraqi women have always been somewhat freer than women in the Arabian peninsula, but there are still many Iraqi women who cover their hair in public.  The hair covering can range from a gauzy veil draped around the head and neck to a thick kerchief folded so that the front lies low on the forehead and the rest of the head is securely swathed.  There are also women who wear the ‘abaya (a long-sleeved, lock cloak or coat-like over garment that covers the body from neck to ankles) whenever they go out.  This is most common in rural areas and among older, less educated women, although more women are now covering up as a result of the fundamentalist movement.[vii]

A young Iraqi girl carries home bottled water and humanitarian meals. Seldom worn at home by young urban women, the wearing of the black veil has expanded rapidly in Iraq under pressure from Islamists since 2003. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

A young Iraqi girl carries home bottled water and humanitarian meals.
Seldom worn at home by young urban women, the wearing of the black veil has expanded rapidly in Iraq under pressure from Islamists since 2003. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Ehsan shared that a female relative of his who was in college in the United States was experiencing difficulty in making friends and felt it was because of her covering.  Ehsan was quick to note that this was not a custom unique to Islam, as other religions also had rules about dress for women.  While some might call it cultural adaptation or integration, Ehsan said “many Iraqis, when they were resettled, left their culture” and were “not Muslims in practice” anymore who did not cover themselves appropriately.

In general, Ehsan felt that Americans were very “understanding” about Islamic culture, though chided us on our general lack of knowledge concerning the Islamic religion.  He was also adamant that the extremists and militant groups claiming to be acting in the name of Islam were “not Islam.  They explain in the wrong way.” And added “their crazy guns destroyed their religion…they make us fear each other.”

I am grateful for Ehsan’s patience when answering my potentially naïve or uninformed questions. Topics and issues raised from our discussion stayed with me long after, causing me to engage some of my friends and family in further reflection.  I understand Ehsan’s perspective is a personal one and he does not speak for all Iraqi refugees, but I am thankful for the opportunity to share it with you in what seems like such a critical time for Iraq and the world.  Perhaps more discussions like these can be had in our community as we collectively choose to sit together and acknowledge and celebrate the differences that make us who we are.

Join us next time to learn the story of Jateen, a young Iraqi refugee who was resettled to Sioux Falls when he was nineteen.


[i] Cultural Orientation Resource Center, Center for Applied Linguistics. “Refugees from Iraq: Their History, Cultures, and Background Experiences” COR Center Enhanced Refugee Backgrounder No. 1. October 2008

[ii] Ibid. pg 12.

[iii] Ibid. pg 15.

[iv] Ibid. pg 14.

[v] Ibid.  pg 15.

[vi] Ibid. pg 32.

[vii] Ibid. pg 15.

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