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Reflection of Real Social Lives and Ordinary People in Fernea’s Book

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Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s quest to a remote village, El Nahra, in Iraq gave us readers an insight of issues of culture shock and cultural relativism many people do not get to experience. As the women of the village called her, BJ was urged to adjust her way of life in America to participate and feel accepted in the customs and traditions of the village. BJ had a rough start warming up to her new environment, but it was the social exchanges with the women and other villagers that gave her a sense of direction and connectedness in such a conservative society.

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BJ was astonished that her American lifestyle was not approved by the women in the village and her lack of understanding their customs were signs of laziness and incompetence. In order for BJ to feel connected and comfortable in the village she knew she had to create relationships with the women. By wearing an abaya, making frequent visits to the women, and learning their language she slowly gained their trust.

A few ways BJ tried to assimilate to the Arabic culture included wearing a veil or abaya, embracing the house worker lifestyle, and by learning the Arabic language. When BJ first arrived to the village she experienced her first culture shock. She immediately felt uncomfortable with how the villagers portrayed her just by her physical appearance. BJ was the only uncovered woman in the village and that was a sign of an immoral woman. One of the first favors she received was an abaya and she knew it was the first way to be accustomed to the lifestyle of the women. BJ and Bob were both white Americans at the top of the social and status hierarchy of the world, especially in comparison with the men and women of the village. It is difficult for BJ to completely understand and conform to their culture, while the men and women of Nahra question her motives.

BJ also observed the absent role females played in the Middle Eastern society. Women were expected to stay at home, be caretakers, and abide by their husbands. Just like the women were not to be seen by foreign men or walk outside their property, BJ had to do the same to avoid being isolated from the women. It’s interesting how BJ begins to understand the seclusion and submission of women as she abided by societal codes. While men and women are somewhat seem as equal in American society and women have the choice to do what they want, BJ understands that the Muslim culture does not necessarily force women to seclude themselves.

One custom BJ struggled to accept was the relationships between men and women of El Nahra. Men were allowed and almost expected to be polygamous and have as many wives as they wanted. Women on the other hand were held to strict rules and one husband. They were not allowed to contact foreigners and should only show their bodies to their husbands. There could also be women who can not marry at all because they can not get married to men from outside the tribe or who may be in the family. Although BJ does not criticize that, recognizes how different their beliefs are to hers. She also realizes that most of the women are completely happy and satisfied with their circumstances.

BJ makes a great deal on how women are treated in Middle Eastern parts. Regardless of different religions and customs, I think BJ encourages us to avoid stereotypes about Muslims and other groups. Instead of building off other critiques and texts, BJ deconstructs the idea about Iraq. BJ tried to explain the why and how these customs and traditions are done, rather than portraying what is right and wrong according to her cultural norms.

Men were assumed to receive education and not do female housework, while women had no education and were expected to do all types of work, even men’s. For example, when Mohammad helps BJ with household affairs, he says that she must not tell anyone or else he will be shamed. BJ recognizes that these gender roles are socially constructed through the religious values of Islam and have strong impacts on the norms and attitudes of the two different sexes. I question whether the Muslim women are honestly content with their lives and roles in their society or if they just don’t understand their rights as women. Us foreigners to the Middle Eastern culture, we might see a female wearing a veil as weak or shy, but to the women of the village it symbolizes protection and privacy. In the end, no matter what culture or geography, we all strive for similar ideals.

The issue of culture shock is the lack of understanding. One way we can learn to understand is to experience it ourselves, but for most people, we have to experience it through someone who already has. Throughout the text, I could only imagine how BJ felt entering an entire different culture and country, but quickly realized this is how a major part of the U.S. society lives everyday. We are quick to judge an individual who does not follow our dress codes or gender roles without understanding the why or what behind it.

Cultural relativism is what creates our roles and statuses in a society. Without cultural relativism I believe the structure and flow would be inconsistent and cause chaos between social interchanges. One belief that BJ and the Muslim women had in common was their female roles.

Similar to America, women are evaluated by their actions. How they act inside and outside the household determines whether they are good mothers, respectful wives, can cook or clean, and if they are a good human being in general. Based on their actions, women are expected to fit a specific status and role. Subsequently, men are placed in a role and status based on their valuables and property. For example, men could be prosperous, but if they own water buffalo rather than cows, their status in lower. BJ also realizes that social cues and norms are not only influenced by religious beliefs, but by traditional customs as well. Throughout the book, BJ accepts all the Iraq traditions in a respectful way.

Fernea’s book reflects real social lives and ordinary people, from her experience, have legitimate reasons to do what they do. Although she may not completely agree and continue to do so in her American lifestyle, BJ understands that many things are essential in one society, but not approved in others. BJ experienced an intense culture shock and I don’t think she could have handled it any better. She did not rely on previous stereotypes or common knowledge, but she understood and learned from her own experience.

It is difficult to understand another’s culture and traditions while you are constantly thinking of your own and disposing them into your own experiences. I think Fernea did an excellent job in the end of her quest and is proven when the Muslim women accepted her. One major key I can take away from Fernea’s experience is to understand before judging and to experience before assuming.

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