Hannah and Colleen share their experiences of the roles and rules around what it means to be a man or a woman (or boy or girl) in Kurdish culture. Expectations and limitations for both men and women are a bit different than our experiences in the United States and anyone thinking to visit would do well to know what they might be getting into.


Learn more on our Iraq Page!
Ask questions about this episode or life in Iraq on our social media or by email to hannah@servantgroup.org. We’d love to hear your thoughts and questions!


Here’s a rough transcript!

Hannah: Welcome to “Between Iraq and a Hard Place”! I’m Hannah.

Colleen: And I’m Colleen.

Hannah: And we’re going to tell you about our life in Iraq.

Colleen: It’s going to be fun.

Hannah: I hope so.

Hannah: Well, Colleen, as the great Tammy Wynette once said it’s hard to be a woman. And I think that’s true in Kurdistan. I think it’s true in much of the world. But I definitely saw a stark difference between everyday life for women in Kurdistan and everyday life for women in the U.S..

Colleen: Yes, that was probably one of the biggest daily regular differences.

Hannah: Yeah. And we have done a podcast about what it was like to be a single female in Iraq. But I think it’s worth talking about kind of the bigger picture of what life is like for all women.

Colleen: Yeah. And the different gender roles that are assigned and expected out of both men and women.

Hannah: Yeah. Because it it really colors a lot more of Day-To-Day life than I think that even I was aware of living in the middle of it.

Colleen: Oh yeah. It wasn’t until I came back to the U.S. and I remember especially one particular experience where I had a man who was older than me and married with a family. So like high high ranking, tell me that he valued and wanted my opinion on something and that I should speak up more in meetings. And I was so surprised and so shocked. And then I questioned myself, like, why are you so surprised and so shocked? Like, that should be normal. Like, that wasn’t weird in your culture. And then I realized how much of the Kurdish or Middle Eastern culture had kind of seeped into my expectations.

Hannah: Yeah. And I think there’s kind of two ways that people react. Women react to that when they’re there in that culture is either you submit to it entirely and are just like this, the way that this is why fight it. Or you you fight back against it in whatever ways are open to you. Some women more openly and obviously than others. But I definitely had I had kind of that variety of reactions from my female students. I know I had one in particular who was like, you know, organize a march for women’s rights and don’t you want to be involved in that? And we should get everyone involved in that. Can you help me with this? And I was just like, I… nope!

Colleen: It’s not what I’m here for.

Hannah: I mean, if you want to do it, do it. I will support you. You know, I will give you advice, but I’m not going to, like, get all your female classmates riled up about this issue. That’s not why I came to Iraq to, like, revolutionize women’s rights. And it’s interesting, as we were reading about what women’s rights are in Iraq, I feel like we got a lot of hearsay of women’s rights.

Colleen: Yeah. It takes two women to equal one man’s weight of witness in court. And, you know, things like that that are just assumed or, you know, told.

Hannah: It is interesting now that the Iraqi constitution is really vague in its language. It just kind of says, yeah, we’re gonna pay pay attention to the rights of women. Not like we’re going to make sure that women have rights. We’re just going to pay attention to them.

Colleen: What does that even mean?

Hannah: And if you’ve been listening long enough, you’ve figured out that Middle Eastern culture is very patriarchal and part of that is Bedouin, kind of that Bedouin background culture or nomad culture of the man takes care of the outside things and the woman takes care of the inside things. Part of it is influenced by Islamic culture, as well. So it’s kind of a combination of those two things. And it’s interesting to see, especially the Kurds, I feel like want to be very forward thinking. I will say they are trying very hard to be forward thinking. I used to have students that made fun of the Saudis, because the women, they’re like women have to walk around covered and they can’t go to school and they can’t even drive. Like what country doesn’t let women drive? And that was never an issue in Kurdistan.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: Like, of course, women are going to learn how to drive. And it may vary from family to family, but legally, women are on fairly equal footing, although their legality is held somewhat more loosely than men. I guess I would say.

Colleen: I mean, the women in Kurdistan do work outside the home. They do have roles in government. They do have a lot of things that on the surface look like equality and the gender roles or whatever people want them to be.

Hannah: I mean, I knew female doctors and lawyers and business women.

Colleen: Yeah. And all of those people are respected for doing that. Not looked at like, oh, a woman shouldn’t be a doctor. I mean, that’s not something that I ever heard anything.

Hannah: And I didn’t have students, you know, my female students just as much as the male students wanted to be engineers and doctors. So there wasn’t they didn’t feel that kind of cap on their their potential, I guess.

Colleen: But at the same time, once you’re actually in those professions or in those roles, there’s still the expectation that you will also take care of the home, that you will be responsible for food and cleanliness and child care and elder care. And that you will, within that environment, still be ranked lower than men

Hannah: Especially if you don’t get married or if you don’t have kids. I don’t think I knew any women highly educated who weren’t also married. And I mean, probably they they chose that to some extent. And there’s not a lot of forced marriage, but there is that societal pressure of like the normal thing is that you get married and you have kids and you take care of your family. And if you can also be a doctor at the same time, great, but you should get married, which is something that some cultures here in the US still deal with. I mean, yeah, I know we’ve talked about that. Even within Christian culture, there is still that expectation that, you know, women get married and take care of kids. And so we’re not we’re not blind to our own our own cultural background in this either. But that’s the subtlety there was not as subtle as it sometimes is here.

Colleen: Oh, yeah, it was. Not at all subtle. Women are definitely expected to be weak and silly and to overreact to situations. There were some more tense situations that I encountered over my years there, and they did not expect me to be the person who was like, calm and collected and could handle it. They expected me to be the person who was going to, like, freak out and faint and be like be hysterical. And I remember kind of surprising some of them at some of those points and them being like, are you OK? Yes, I’m fine. But there’s blood. Yes, there is. The kid will be fine. It will be fine. I am not going to go into a panic for you. And yet that was what was expected of me, but not of my male teammates.

Hannah: I feel like I didn’t encounter it quite so, obviously. I think perhaps also because I seem like I’m in control all the time. I come across that way very strongly. So it was it was interesting now to see in my relationships especially, I had a male supervising teacher principal and to see him kind of hang back and watch and see how I reacted to situations and how he treated me differently than the other female teachers because I reacted to situations differently than they did. And just kind of, yeah, that expectation of I had to earn my way into getting his respect where my male co-teachers did not. And my experience is a little different, too, because I didn’t really have male teammates my first year in Iraq. Well, I didn’t have any male teammates my first year in Iraq and my second year I had one, a married couple and the husband of that married couple who worked part time. He was not a teacher, though. He did not enjoy teaching. So I won that contest because I, I like to teach, but I felt like I didn’t see as much of the favor simply because there wasn’t a male there to compare myself to.

Colleen: Because to some extent we all were coming in as outsiders. So there was expectation that we would be treated maybe differently from the other teachers regardless. But yeah, the contrast between how if, in a teachers meeting, if one of me or my female teammates, gave a suggestion how it was received in that environment versus one of the male teachers or one of my male teammates gave a suggestion. And how that was received was probably one of the things that was the most frustrating. And at certain points, sometimes my male teammates would would recognize that. And so then they would like pipe up and repeat. And sometimes even say, well, Colleen suggested this. And I think it’s a good idea. And then, you know, 10 minutes later, the Kurdish principal is saying, well, his idea was so great. And in ways that I don’t think he even really realized. But was just like, if it’s a good idea, it must have come from a man.

Hannah: Yeah. And that that can be very frustrating. It can be very demoralizing in some ways. I think in in my case, it made me quieter. That it was like, oh, if no one’s going to listen to my ideas anyway, I’m just not going to say anything. And so I kind of adapted them like I’m a sit back. And if you ask for my opinion, I will tell you. But I’m not going to speak up in this meeting.

Colleen: Right. Well, I think that’s part of where my American boss’s comment came out of the blue for me saying, no, I want you to speak up. Why are you not talking? Why are you not sharing your ideas? And I’d gotten into the habit of, unless it was something that I felt was really important. I wasn’t going to share it. And even if I did think it was really important, I was not going to share it in a group meeting. I was going to go to the supervisor and talk to him personally with a whole bunch of evidence. And having done a lot of research and then let him run with it and take it as his idea, because I felt like that was the way a change that I thought was important was actually going to happen.

Hannah: Yeah, we’ve talked a bit before to you about how men, males, boys in Kurdistan are kind of allowed to do whatever they want to do.

Colleen: Oh, yeah.

Hannah: I feel like I saw that all the time. And I think it’s something that some of my male students struggled with, with me as a teacher is I wouldn’t let them dominate the classroom or I wouldn’t let them get away with whatever they thought they could get away with. But I also had to be careful not to come down too hard on them because there was kind of that reactionary, like I now have power over you. And people of your gender are obviously repressing people of my gender. And now that I have power over you, I want to make you pay for it. Again, not something I think that was conscious. But I did notice that I would get much more frustrated with my male students than I did with my female students, in part because their behavior was a lot worse,

Colleen: Because they’re more frustrating!

Hannah: But also, I do think I had internalized some of that conflict and was like trying to get back at them on some level or get some justice for my female students. The boys, I can’t call them men because in my mind, they’re all still like sixth grade boys. They’re all grown men now, like beards and families. And it’s weird.

Colleen: I know. I know. I met one just last week, who came to visit us. And it’s like you’re tall and you have a beard. And what is this? Who are you?

Hannah: I definitely heard and tried really hard when I did hear these things to put the kibosh on it. But heard them say things about women or about their female classmates that came from that idea that women are are weak or foolish or they were really good about recognizing when one of the went one of the girls in class with them was smart. They knew that. But they also felt like since she was smart, she was obligated to help them because they could do more than she ever could.

Colleen: Right. That now her smartness was something that they could exploit.

Hannah: Right. And I. I saw it happen over and over and over again. And I tried to put forth effort to talk to those boys and be like, she is not responsible for you. You are responsible for you. And I think that’s a a big thing is men are not responsible for taking care of themselves in a lot of ways. So, like a wife will come under criticism if her husband is too skinny. Well, she must not be feeding him. Well, I mean, but it’s not her fault if he’s not eating what she makes or if his

Colleen: “Her food just must not be good enough!”

Hannah: Yeah. UGH! Or if he’s tired or not getting enough rest. You know, it’s the wife’s fault. She’s probably harassing him. Or if they can’t have kids, obviously it’s her fault. And I think that’s a really a really hard cloud to live under.

Kim: Hi, I’m Kim. I’m the office manager here at Servant Group International. I’m the one who’s responsible for processing donations, for keeping the ministry going, and for the staff. And we would love for you to keep me busy.

Hannah: I do also want to recognize, though, that men have their own struggles within that society.

Colleen: Absolutely. And their roles also have challenges and pressures that come with them.

Hannah: Especially if you are the oldest son, there is a lot of responsibility on your shoulders to not only provide for your nuclear family, you know, your wife and kids, but you also are caring for your aging parents and perhaps even their parents. And any of your younger siblings who are not married and established themselves. Like you, you take on all of these responsibilities and expectations that we don’t see that in American culture.

Colleen: I mean, we’re very independent minded and we are responsible only for ourselves. And they’re that communal side of things definitely means that everyone, especially the the oldest male, is responsible for caring for and taking care of his family,

Hannah: Which means that if you have a younger sibling who’s a real, just a mess, who can’t get anything right ever. It’s shameful to you, as the oldest, like you should be the one controlling their behavior. You should be the one making sure that they have a job or that they get a good education or whatever. And that’s an unfair responsibility in a lot of ways, from a Western perspective.

Colleen: Especially in cases where there’s been a lot of war and a lot of men have died. And so sometimes that responsibility gets put on kids. Even if some of it may be pushed off a little bit like needing to financially provide. I had sixth and seventh graders sometimes whose fathers were dead that had this pressure on them to succeed, to do well in school so that for the mere, the only purpose of providing for their families and taking care of their families and this goal focus even at a young age .

Hannah: Which means that for a lot of them, they put off or have to put off thinking about getting married or thinking about having their own families. There’s also this idea that the man has to provide for his wife. And so a lot of men who want to get married. I heard this a lot. They want to get married. They’ve met the girl that they want to marry. But her father has said, well, you have to have house and you have to have a car and you have to have a high paying job. And it is really hard to provide those things in a country that is not super stable economically. And where you have to pay for everything in cash, there are no loans, you have to earn that money to buy that house and furnish that house and buy the car and and like the job market is not great.

Colleen: It’s rough. So if you don’t have the tribal connections or the, you know, political affiliations to be kind of gifted those things. It can be really challenging.

Hannah: And that’s why a lot of men end up leaving Kurdistan and getting jobs elsewhere. I knew a lot of men who maybe could not provide the house and the car for a wife in Kurdistan, but could move to the U.S. and get a green card. And that American near citizenship was equal to a house and a car in the father’s eyes who feel like you can provide a place of safety, basically, for my daughter. So I felt like I know a lot of people who their fiancee was living in America. They were coming back. They were going to get married. The fiancee was gonna go back to the US and in a year she would come to America to live with him. And so it was very nontraditional in that she kept living with her family until he could come and get her. I was always felt sorry is not the right word, but it always felt so painful to me to be like, this is this is hard. Like, this is hard for the woman. This is hard for the man. This is hard. Like because she’s going to leave and never see her family again. He is never going to see his family again. But they want to be together. There was like that. Like deep, beautiful love story. I’m a sucker for a good romance. But it’s it’s a rough place to live and a lot of ways and I think there’s really strict gender roles are part of it.

Colleen: And it’s hard for men also who tried to or want to buck those social trends at all. I mean, I think we’ve talked about this before, but I had a neighbor and I think you did, too, at one point where the man would sometimes do the cooking and like we would watch the husband, he would stand there and he would be chopping vegetables. And it wasn’t because his wife or daughter were incapable of those things because they did cooking, too. But sometimes he did the cooking and he would get razzed by the other neighbors for doing any cooking. And he just happened to like it. That that was something that, you know, oh, that’s women’s work. I think that he could be judged for that was frustrating and also wrong.

Hannah: It also means that the men in the role of father have kind of a tricky balance. I definitely I definitely think this is trending differently now. But a lot of men aren’t expected to raise their kids, essentially.

Colleen: Right. That’s women’s work.

Hannah: Right. The mother does it or the husband’s mother does it. You know, the grandmother raises the kids. It means that a lot of a lot of father child relationships are very strained, to say the least.

Colleen: And not to say that all of them are, because I did know several that were very good, very good relationships.

Hannah: But but those were the exception.

Colleen: Yeah, they were noticeable.

Hannah: Yeah. Because it’s like, oh, you like your dad. You have a good relationship with him. He encourages you to do the things that you’re dreaming of. That was one thing that was really neat for me to see when I was on a team in Dohuk with families, with men who had young children, little children, and for them to recognize, Hey, as a father, part of the way I can help change people’s hearts is to be a good dad to my kids. To go out in the yard and play with them. And, you know, they had the, like, baby carriers and the guys would carry around their babies and Kurdish men would be like, “I can’t, like, make fun of you because you’re an American and kind of the coolest person I know. But also, why are you carrying around a baby??”

Colleen: But at the same time, Kurdish men love babies!

Hannah: Yes. It’s so weird!

Colleen: They will coo over and googly eyes over babies. But probably you’re right. Never be seen carrying around their own.

Hannah: I can’t recall if I ever saw a Kurdish man hold a baby.

Colleen: Oh, I did. But briefly.

Hannah: Like cradle in the arms or like hold up under the armpits and look at it?

Colleen: Cradle.

Hannah: OK. See, I only saw the hold up under the arms and be like you’re a baby or pinch the cheeks.

Colleen: Yeah. The Kurdish men love babies, but yeah, the parenting of them, especially past that point, is…

Hannah: …really up to the women.

Colleen: It’s the women’s work.

Hannah: Right. So you get teenage girls who are growing up with dads who kind of societally are forced to be distant from them. And, you know, teenage girls be teenage girls and the dads come down hard on the teenage girls because the girls are bringing shame. This is the other thing that I never quite figured out, how it is that girls who have such little value in a lot of ways are such huge bringers of shame to their fathers. Like, there’s part of me that gets it. Like, I understand the value that they have. I guess it would be more shameful if you had a son and a daughter and the son was failing school and the daughter wasn’t. The son’s failure would be more shameful than the daughter’s failure. But I feel like the daughter would be given a harder time than the son.

Colleen: Yeah, I don’t know. We’ll have to do some research on that topic when we come back to the question of honor.

Hannah: Oh, yeah. There’s a teaser for you. Shame and honor. It’s coming eventually.

Colleen: I mean, we already kind of did shame.

Hannah: We did.

Colleen: We’ve got to talk about honor. We gotta do some more personal research on that one, because you’re right, it still befuddles us. We don’t quite understand how that works.

Hannah: It’s complicated and deep rooted. Yeah. I think a good thing to do is to look at how gender kind of plays a role in in your circles. And again, look at it from both sides. It’s everybody has some things that are different because of their gender.

Colleen: Right. And is every culture has aspects of it that are shaped by that and how we interact with each other, what kind of value we place on each other.

Hannah: Yeah. So look for those things. Send us an email or Facebook message and tell us. Hey, this is what I’ve noticed. This is what I see is different, especially if you have Middle Eastern friends. Look at the way their life runs and the way that your life runs and see if you can see how gender plays a role in some of those things

Colleen: And even ask them. It might be a fun conversation.

Hannah: Yeah. Be a really fun conversation and then tell us about it because we want to know.

Colleen: We’d love to hear from you. You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram. And you should check out our blog and complete transcripts over at ServantGroup.org.

Hannah: And it’s really helpful for us if you share our podcast or leave a review on whatever platform you listen to this podcast on. It helps us know that people are listening. And you can let us know what you want to hear next. Thanks for listening.