The kunyaa(اللقب) and other names
Traditionally, Arabs--and Iraqis among them--value family greatly, and a person’s identity is strongly connected to his family. Dissimilar to practices common in the US, a person’s first middle name is usually the name of his- or her father; and, this is often indicated on official documents. It is also not uncommon for an Arab male to be able to recite a number of middle names, which indicate his genealogy along the paternal line--beginning with his father, followed by his grandfather and then great grandfather, etc.
In addition to close family ties, Arabs have historically been tied to their communities and their home towns or cities so it has not been infrequent for a man to be referred to with a laqab (لَقَب) or ‘nickname’ to this effect that differentiates him further. Saddam Hussein was from the town of Tikrit, and therefore, he was sometimes referred to as Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti.
As with the case of many cultures, traditionally throughout the Arab world, gender roles have been clearly defined. It bears remembering that--despite women’s suffrage (i.e., the right to vote) and their entry into factory work in the first part of the twentieth century, women in the United States, didn’t enter the workforce in appreciable numbers until the Second World War. Furthermore, ‘women’s liberation’ and ‘feminism’ as movements did not gain momentum until the 1960s, and it took until the 1970s for ‘equal rights’ initiatives--such as pay equal to that of men for the same job--to come to the fore.
Beginning with the radical reforms of Egypt’s sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh at the outset of the twentieth century, things began to change in the Arab world with girls and women being admitted into the schools and higher education system. Under the Ba‘ath in Iraq, significant emphasis was placed on education and at the elementary- and secondary levels, girls and boys began studying in mixed classrooms (typically with boys on one side and girls on the other). Iraqi colleges and universities also followed policies of integration; and, Iraqi women--along with women in other ‘progressive’ countries such as Egypt/the United Arab Republic (UAR)--entered the workforce in various capacities, including professional- and highly-skilled ones.
With the bringing down of predominantly ‘secular’ Arab state regimes across the Arab world, through the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ‘color revolutions’ of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, many of the ‘gains’ and trends towards ‘gender equality’ have been rolled back or altogether reversed in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Iraq. While the Iraqi government has not officially departed from previous policies in this regard, the influence of ‘conservative Islam’ and ‘Islamic extremism’ has played a decisive role; and, situations are especially repressive in areas that have come under the control of Da‘sh--داعش (ISIS/ISIL).
In traditional gender roles within Arab families, women have typically been responsible for the raising and edification of children as well as cooking and household chores, while men have most often worked outside the house in various capacities. While in present-day Iraq, one may find female doctors, professors, engineers, lawyers, businesswomen, administrators, directors and members of parliament, still--within the professional- and trade- sphere, there are occupations that are still predominantly considered the province of men, such work in the armed forces, driving taxis or running a coffee shop. It is worth mentioning that the practice of a woman covering her hair, known as al-hijaab--الحِجَاب, does not necessarily correlate either to level of education or profession; and, in the current social ‘climate’ most women cover their hair when going out in public or on the street and often with a one-piece garment (typically black in color) known as an ‘abaayah (عَبَايَة). The practice of a woman covering all but her eyes as found among Saudis and ultra-conservative Sunni women is known as niqaab (نِقَاب).
Interaction Between Males and Females
While there are sometimes quite radical differences between different Arab countries and even within a single country itself, there are some general ‘rules of thumb’ about what is considered appropriate interaction between unmarried males and Arab females--if this permitted at all. Urban areas have typically had somewhat more relaxed ‘restrictions’ about male-female interaction, whereas villages and rural areas tend to be more ‘conservative’.
If you are male, you should make sure that your interaction with Arab females is respectful and appropriate; and, keep in mind that interactions have their context. It is different if you are introduced by an Iraqi or Iraqis to an Iraqi woman than if you attempt to do so yourself and without a reason. You should not touch Arab women whom you do not know and--quite often--even ones you know. While in your own culture you might find it reflexive to routinely shake hands with both men and women, many women--if not most--in the Arab world prefer not to do so. This should not be understood or interpreted as any sort of ‘rudeness’ but due either to religious observance or an interest in avoiding misunderstandings where physical touch between members of the opposite sex is generally reserved for either married persons or close family relatives. An Arab woman also may not be comfortable in a situation where she is alone with a man she does not know.
A woman who covers her hair and wears the hijaab is most likely religiously observant and will be disinclined to shake hands and possibly to interact with a male other than her husband or a close relative. It bears mentioning that American ‘popular cultural’ and its ‘norms’ has departed radically from that which was prevalent in the 1940s and before. For instance, well into the early twentieth century women would often cover their hair with a kurchief, bonnet or hat whenever they went out in public; and, norms of public ‘decorum’ were much stricter across the board. If young men and women were permitted to ‘date’, they were often chaperoned.
Sunnis and Shi‘ites
While Islam is a single religion from the standpoint of the Qur’an and its original source as a divine message--risaalah (الرسالة) revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (d. 622 CE), it historically has had many different ‘sects’ and ‘schools’ of Islamic jurisprudence/law. Such as sect or school is termed a madhhab (مَذْهَب) and the study and practice of Islamic jurisprudence is known as al-fiqh (اَلْفِقْه). The two most prominent branches of Islam today are Sunni--sunnee (سُنِّي) and Shi‘ite--shee‘ee (شِيعِيّ); and, collectively, these two groups are known as al-sunnah (اَلسُّنَّة) and al-shee‘ah (اَلشِيعَة), respectively. Overall, Sunnis constitute the majority throughout the world; however, in certain Muslim countries including Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, in particular, Shi‘ites are in the majority; and, Iraq is home to most of the holy shrines of Shi‘ite Islam as well as the ancient famous center and city of Islamic Shi‘ite learning--al-Najaf (اَلنَّجَف)