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Family, Clan, Tribe in Iraq

Kurdish villagers
Kurdish villagers

Iraqi society is organized differently from Western, post-industrial society. There is a strong orientation to the family and the clan (which consists of several families). About 40 percent of the population are also loyal to their own tribe (which consists of several clans). There are about a hundred large tribes and twenty-five tribal confederations.

The existence of the tribes dates from far before the rise of Islam. In the Ottoman Empire, efforts were already being made to restrict the power of the tribes and to bind nomadic tribes to one location. With the introduction of the Land Registration Act in 1932, most of the tribal leaders became large landowners and were integrated into national governance in some way. Land reforms after the 1958 revolution and the massive movement to the cities undermined the tribes’ economic and social position, to the benefit of the central state.

After the coup d’état in 1968, the scales again tipped in the other direction. In an attempt to secure the centre of power, President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and his cousin Saddam Hussein placed power in the hands of the members of their own Sunni Arab clan and the Sunni Arab tribes connected with it. Traditional loyalties thus came to be critically important at the highest political and military levels. On the other hand, a growing number of Iraqis fell back on family, clan, and tribe, to protect themselves against the encroachment of the police state and later also for economic survival in a country ravaged by war and economic sanctions. The regime also mobilized the tribes to maintain peace and order in the countryside after the outbreak of the war with Iran in 1980. Over the past two decades, new life has thus been breathed into traditional structures in Iraqi society, from the top down and from the bottom up.

During an open air wedding party Photo Fanack
During an open air wedding party Photo Fanack

There is a rigid hierarchy in the traditional extended family, in which several generations (parents and their children, grandparents, brothers with their families) live under the same roof. Authority lies formally in the hands of males, who are ranked according to age and social position. Among women, authority increases with age and number of children. An Arab father takes the name of his firstborn son or daughter, preceded by Abu (father of…), and a mother takes the name of her firstborn, preceded by Umm (mother of…).

Nuclear families, composed of parents and children, predominate in today’s cities. To this unit are sometimes added the husband’s grandparents or his unwed sister (who, even if she is an adult, is deemed incapable of living alone; this is not true of a widow).

Arab and Kurdish societies are patrilineal. Upon marriage, a woman leaves her family and enters the family of her husband. In addition to being a union between two people, a marriage is seen as an alliance between two families. Children from the marriage are counted as members of the husband’s family. In the case of divorce, the woman loses her children and returns to her parents or brothers.

These traditional social relationships impose immense social pressure and control. Individual conduct is tightly regulated, and violations of unwritten laws are punished. Family honour is regarded as the highest good and defines a family’s prestige in relation to other families. Violations of traditional rules and customs, such as improper contacts between men and women, are regarded as a blot on the family honour and punished with physical violence, in order to redress the harm done to the family. Violence can be used in response to violence. According to Islamic law, questions of honour and acts of violence should be laid before an Islamic court for judgement and punishment, but this generally does not happen, particularly in rural areas: people take the law into their own hands, sometimes acting in complete disregard of Islamic law.

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