My maternal grandmother died from cancer in a room she shared with my cousin, in my aunt’s house. The hands which took care of her belonged to those she knew and loved and who loved her—until the end. My parents currently care for my baby niece. This allowed my sister, a medical doctor, to return to work after maternity leave. These dynamics are ways my family has continued to live our version of the Iraqi village here in the West.
Leslie Loftis touched on a singular and important issue in “Feminism and the Razing of the Village”: feminism has contributed to the disappearance of the historical support structures in American society. To fill the gap and subdue the cries of women, the Left pushes for government to take up family’s lost role. In light of Loftis’s call for rebuilding “village” wherever we can find it, I would like to draw out wisdom from the Christian subculture that once existed in Iraq.
In spite of its political problems and recent subdual into near oblivion, there is much we in the West can learn from Christian culture in Iraq, a civilization which valued and honored the institutions of marriage and family, albeit not perfectly. The Islamic State has destroyed what was left of my mother land, but it has not erased its traditions from my memory. It is in the hopes of ameliorating this culture in which I am now raising my family, this country which I call my home, that I offer these insights.
Why Feminism Didn’t ‘Take’ in Iraq
The bulk of the disparity I have seen between the Iraqi Christian culture and the American culture is in family structure and formation: America, and the West in general, centers on what is called the nuclear family (mom and dad in the center, with some children orbiting about). Iraqi culture (Muslim and Christian) centers on households (nuclear family plus extended family) living together or in close proximity and taking care of each other. And, yes, minding each other’s business. Hence, the social structure of the society was built on something sturdier—the social unit of multigenerational households.
Within this paradigm, the decisions of those living within a particular household would be evaluated against the best interest of the household as a whole, with less individual autonomy than we Westerners are used to (or are comfortable with). This, I believe, is a key to explaining why Iraqi culture never did go the way of the American culture, though some feminist ideas trickled in—most often imported by men and women who had studied abroad in the West. I’m not suggesting there were no Iraqi families living in the nuclear style, there were, but a) it wasn’t as prevalent and b) they still tended to stay close to and sometimes rely on relatives.
The sexual revolution as we know it in America did not get so much as a toe in the door in Iraq. The reasoning behind this may surprise American people. It was for many of the same reasons the Roman Catholic Church gave in that most prophetic and beautiful encyclical, Humanae Vitae:
Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
As the philosophies of the West came in little by little, they were tempered by Middle Eastern identity and cultural values. Some theories hit that wall hard and smashed, such as the idea of legal abortions, premarital sex, and mass use of the Pill. This is not to say that some folks didn’t bring these ideas into the country. They did. As a matter of fact, in 1976, Iraq—one of the more Westernized and advanced Arab countries—had over-the-counter oral contraceptives. But primarily because of a traditional understanding of sex as between a husband and a wife, none of these things really took off. The consequences we are seeing in this country didn’t play out because the masses did not swallow these “new” and “liberating” ideas hook line and sinker. In terms of cultural norms, sex and sexual identity remained immovable—sex was between one man and one woman inside marriage. Full stop.
Educated Women Benefit Close Families
Higher education for women did see significant changes from these Western ideas (before the wars). That idea was also tempered by Middle Eastern Christian identity and cultural values, and filtered in as a way to benefit the entire household and, beyond that, society. Unlike the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian stance of Second Wave Feminism, the families and women of Iraq saw higher education and freedoms of women as opportunities for a woman to better herself and her family, including the extended family. So instead of an educated female element of the workforce acting to tear apart families, the outcome brought families together—raising up the quality of life for the whole household.
My great-aunt was married when she was honored as the top OB-GYN student in medical school. Subsequently, she was sent abroad to further her medical training. My great-uncle, also an OB-GYN, went with her to help and support her. Her mother stayed back in Iraq to care for their baby daughter. At the end of her time abroad, she returned to Iraq in possession of advanced training. As she worked, she gave back to her family and her family continued to give to her. She was able to work without the guilt and worry of her Western peers. Her family was there to care for her, her husband, and her children. She contributed to the society around her—for many years she and my great-uncle were well known and respected OB-GYNs in Baghdad. And it just so happened that she brought me into the world.
Each member of an Iraqi household relies on all the others. Each member plays a role according to his or her age and stage in life. The entire household is better off economically due to the resources those working outside it bring. These resources stay within the family to better everyone because none of it is necessary for day care, elder care, etc. This may sound selfish to the jaded skeptic, but it’s not. This dynamic is fueled by love and service between the family members. Were there exceptions? Of course! Are there examples of dysfunctions and difficulties in this model? Obviously.
A Village Where the Elderly also Contribute and Benefit
Although Iraq was a socialist country, this did not seem to impact the family as it did in Western countries. The Middle Eastern family and societal ethos requires that we take care of our own elderly. My aunt stayed in Iraq to care for my paternal grandparents. She endured the care and dying of both of my grandparents, her parents. (It wasn’t until the 2000s that there were any nursing homes in Baghdad. There may currently be two, due to economic and family breakdown and death from the wars.) Before the most recent times, no one would think to drop off an aging relative at a nursing home, and this thought was so prevalent that no enterprising businessman or government bureaucrat would think to try building one. It was understood by both the Muslims and Christians that it was a family’s responsibility to care for each other.
This wasn’t purely a burden, either. No one would think of retirement communities and nursing homes because the grandparents were also such a vital part of the household. They provided care for the children and took part in the children’s educational and spiritual formation. As they were able, grandparents helped with the cooking and upkeep of the home. When my parents received their first teaching assignment, it was at a village an hour away from Baghdad, which back then was a big deal. My maternal grandfather came and stayed three days each week to help out. The elderly were “keepers of the home”—keeper as in guardian, curator, or overseer. These old guardians were useful and contributing members of households and, hence, of society, until they lay dying and passed the baton.
Because of their family living and support model, even women who were at home were not as isolated or overburdened. Everyone helped with rearing children. In what would be equivalent to middle-class households, most women were highly educated and worked. The divorce rate for Christians was essentially nonexistent, not only because of faith and family pressure, but because husbands and wives had a lot of support. This prevented many of the kind of stressful situations we see in nuclear families that tend to lead to exhaustion, explosion, and divorce.
A True Village Comes at a Cost
Everything has a cost. There is a cost to setting others above our personal desires and dreams. There is a cost to living with aging parents. There is a cost to giving up 20 years of life to be at home nurturing and caring for the bodies and souls of little children. There is a cost to getting pressure from family members not to get divorced and sticking through a desert season in marriage, and so on. In a society that seeks to bond together more closely for its greater good and the good of it progeny, everyone must pay a cost.
We in the West have encountered costs for our individualism, selfishness, self-actualization, and the route of light responsibility. These costs include a society which scoffs at and spurns fecundity, traditional marriage between a man and a woman, monogamy, celibacy, and so forth. It is a society where abortion, divorce, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, latch-key children, and the like are even considered normative, not discretionary costs of individualism. When these ills are recognized as problems, often our reflex is to add other costs: of taxes, spending, and civil (rather than voluntary individual) curtailment of liberties.
Again, my intention is not to idealize one culture while demonizing another. Iraqi Christian culture doesn’t even really exist anymore. It was bombed away—now there’s nothing but rubble, dirt, and poverty left. I know there is much good within Western culture. My goal is to start a conversation on how we in the West can learn from those in the East regarding the family.
It may be helpful to take some of these ideas and start looking for a way to incorporate them into our society, families, parishes, and institutions. It’s quite possible that one way forward is to invest time in thinking of practical ways local communities, churches, and institutions can band together to form sturdier bonds—helping each other with childcare, eldercare, shopping, cooking, education, and the like. But before we can move toward that, we have to be willing to ask ourselves if we can let go of that go-it-alone independent spirit that is ubiquitous in our culture. Certain practical decisions may come out of this re-thinking of our way of life. Some of us may decide to move closer to extended family. Others may decide to take in an aging parent, aunt, or uncle. For others, it may mean helping friends with childcare or offering to go shopping for them. In whatever form some of these ideas take shape, I think it is time to rebuild the American village through millions of acts of grace and individual sacrifice.