Guests of the Sheik: Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

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Guests of the Sheik: Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

Written in the late 1950’s this is ethnography of a small village El Nahra, in Iraq. Elizabeth Fernea, the author, is the new wife of an anthropologist, who joins her husband in Iraq to do his graduate work. As an American woman, Elizabeth eventually chooses to integrate herself into tribal society by donning the traditional abayah (what we know as a burka), avoiding being seen by unfamiliar men. She lives and eats and works as the women of the village do almost entirely secluded from her husband. Upon first arriving, she refuses to cloak herself in the abayah, she wonders why she should be forced to wear it, "a servile garment," since it is not her custom and she doesn’t care what the "illiterate tribal women" think of her. Almost immediately she is treated like an alien from another planet, shunned by the women in the village. After the rejection she is felt she agrees to wear the abayah, but she also agrees to live like an Iraqi woman, living behind walls and not mixing with men other than her husband. There is a time where, two American friends of Bob’s are stopping by their house, she is excited that she is able to speak English, play cards, drink beer, and have what Westerners see as a fun time. However, her female friends stop by, thinking she will be all by herself, as it never even occurs to them that an American woman would mix with strange men who are not relatives. The woman are appalled, thus for the rest of stay, Elizabeth knows if she does not wear the abayah, or if she sits with men (that are not her husband or other relation) and plays cards, or if she mixes with other men in the village she will be seen as promiscuous because the Iraqi culture and society she is in does not understand, nor does it approve of Western culture. Elizabeth reflects that her American friends also would never understand the women in the village, which they are not forced against their will to live...
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