A feeling of familial affection is the first thing the visitor notices when entering the Baghdad home of Hadeel Zuhair, a 38-year-old Arab Sunni dentist. The mother of three is married to a 39-year-old Arab Shi’ite businessman from southern Iraq.
They are determined not to let the sectarian violence that has engulfed Iraq since the attack on the Shi’ite Askariya shrine in Samarra on 22 January tear their family apart. Immediately after the shrine attack, Shi’ite militants responded by attacking dozens of Sunni mosques.
“We’ve been married for six years and our sectarian differences have never affected us,” said Hadeel. “For many years, we Iraqis viewed mixed marriages not as a problem but as an asset for uniting our country.”
According to estimates, two million out of Iraq’s 6.5 million marriages are unions between Arab Sunnis and Shi’ites. “In the beginning, my family was worried about our marriage,” Hadeel explained. “But in the end, we convinced them that religious differences were not important enough to prevent a family from being built.”
Many of the doctrinal differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites are minor enough to be dismissed, except by puritans of both sects. Mixed marriages between Arab Sunnis and Shi’ites – and also between the predominantly Sunni Kurds and Arabs of both sects – have been common, even in the days of former president Saddam Hussein, when Shi’ites were heavily discriminated against.
Hadeel’s husband, Jamal Jomaa, noted that the current wave of sectarian violence was unlikely to disrupt the homes of mixed marriages, since they were living proof that such violence was useless and unnecessary. “During the Saddam Hussein regime, we never heard of sectarian violence, despite all the problems that we went through,” Jomaa said. “Now we have to be strong to show our children that those committing sectarian violence are doing wrong.”
According to sociologists, one of the major problems facing mixed families is displacement. “When these families are being displaced, their main concern is where to go, because each one has a particular sectarian area to run to,” said Marouf Abbas, a sociologist in Baghdad. “Usually the wives follow their husbands so as to keep their families intact.”
More than 40,000 families have been displaced in Iraq due to ongoing sectarian violence, according to estimates by the Ministry of Displacement and Migration. “My husband is Sunni, but I’m a Shi’ite from Basra, in south Iraq,” said Samira Kadham, a Baghdad resident. “We were forced to leave our house in Kadhmiya because my family received anonymous threats accusing my husband of terrorism.”
“We’re here now taking refuge with Sunnis in an abandoned building on the outskirts of the capital because I will never leave my husband,” Samira added. “How you pray isn’t important – what’s important is to show your children that differences of opinion can still exist in our country.”
Millions of Iraqi children are the products of Sunni-Shi’ite unions, brought up in homes where different beliefs coexist peacefully. In today’s Iraq, however, they are being forced to think differently. “There’s no sectarian violence in my home because my parents live harmoniously with each other,” said Hala Kubaissy, 12, daughter of a Sunni father and a Shi’ite mother. “But when I reach school, I’m confronted with a different reality.”
Local NGOs working with children say that sectarian violence has seriously affected the psychology of children, especially those born of mixed marriages. “They suffer more because society accuses them doubly,” explained Ahmed Farid, a psychologist and spokesperson for Peace for Iraqis Association (PIA), a local NGO devoted to the issue. “They’re accused by Sunnis for being Shi’ite and also by Shi’ite for being Sunnis.”
Many mixed couples believe that the best way to fight sectarian violence is to remind people that there is only one God. “When someone comes to me or my husband asking if we are Sunni or Shi’ite, we have only one answer – that we are Muslims,” Hadeel added. “Everyday I give this lesson to my children before they go to school and urge them to believe that, with love, a solution to the violence can be reached.”
In the meantime, Jomaa and Hadeel have formed an association for mixed couples called Union for Peace in Iraq (UPI), which has already attracted the membership of about 40 such couples. The association’s aim is to fight sectarian violence by showing that mixed couples can – and usually do – live in happiness.
“It’s difficult for us to meet regularly, especially since it is dangerous and the curfew is enforced,” Jomaa said. “But we meet at different places – in clubs, tea shops, restaurants. We’re spreading our ideas and we’re preventing the violence from entering the family house.”
Currently, there is no other organisation devoted to helping the country’s mixed couples. On the contrary, there are many people who are urging members of mixed marriages to leave their spouses because of sectarian differences. “My cousin came to me and said I had to leave my husband because he is Sunni,” Hadeel said. “My only answer to her was that a terrorist was somebody like her – someone who wants to destroy our happiness and prosperity.”