Conversations about Arabic Family Life and Gender

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Like individuals elsewhere, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Syrians face issues of everyday life. These individuals deal with issues acutely aware both of Israel and the surrounding violence looming like a thunderstorm overhead. I had these following conversations concerning everyday life and Arabic attitudes and actions associated with family life and gender issues.

 

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Unsurprisingly, I had numerous conversations about family life and the status and role of women. Kamal, a Palestinian, described a typical marriage proposal. After meeting a young woman and deciding that marriage is in their future, a young man might approach the young woman’s father and say: “I have saved 75,000 Israeli dollars. I can offer that as a dowry.” The father might say: “I appreciate your desire to marry my daughter, but that is not enough.” After the young man raises the amount to 85,000, the father might say “Welcome to the family.” At some point, the young woman and her mother will go to a jewelry shop. The young man will stand outside with his back to the shop. When the women are finished, he will go in and pay for the jewelry. That is the dowry. Is this purely a cold and contractual agreement? Kamal says no. At its heart, the dowry goes to support the young woman if something should ever happen to the young man or if the young man decides to divorce her. Kamal concluded: “The wealth, the jewelry, will always be hers. In a society where there is no social security or other safety nets for women, this practice offers some future security.”

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“Eddie,” a Jordanian, elaborated on Kamal’s description of Palestinian marriage practices. In Jordan, many young men often live with their father and mother until their mid or late twenties. During those years, the young man is saving to afford a separate apartment or house. Only when they can afford their own place, will a young man seek a wife. Eddie talked about the image of Muslim men having up to four wives. Eddie stated: “Among my friends and family nobody has more than one wife. Although Mohammad allowed a man to have four wives, Mohammad also said that the man “must treat them equally.” Eddie then asked the rhetorical question “Who can treat wives equally?” He could never have multiple wives because he could never love them equally. In his view, women have a great deal of autonomy. In his own family, his wife works and completely controls the money that she earns from her work. While the Jordanian divorce rate is very low. It does occur. From Eddie’s point of view, “Divorce usually doesn’t come from sexual infidelity; instead, the divorce is caused by “pressure, pressure, pressure.” It is the pressure of living in a society facing an uncertain present and future because of the tensions and problems of the Mideast.

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Finally, Stephanie, a scholar and professor at a Palestinian university, described the Arabic family unit as a “protective family.” She stated that there are opportunities for young, single, educated Palestinian women who are able to pursue college degrees. If such a young woman is accepted to study overseas, the entire immediate family decides where and whether she will go. The key factor in the decision is whether there are immediate or extended family members living in the same area overseas. As she described young Palestinian women, Stephanie stated that there is an inability to think about their own individual lives, their goals or their own happiness. When she asked her women students, “Who is important in your life?” none of them showed pictures of boyfriends. Her female students showed her their Facebook pages with photos of parents and even grandparents. When she asked her students to describe the happiest day of their lives, her female students had difficulty. One of them wrote “I was happiest when I saw my father smiling in pride because I did well on my graduation exam.”

Highly valuing the family is not restricted to young women. Stephanie mentioned a young fellow, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, who won “Arab Idol.” As the young man thanked his father, he broke down into tears. To this young man, to Stephanie’s female students, and to other Arabic people, the family unit is incredibly important.

Finally, contrary to some assumptions that Arabic women are weak and docile because they are enmeshed within a restrictive family setting, she finds that Arabic women are “incredibly strong women.” While this may be counter to some western stereotypes, Stephanie explained that “women have to be strong because they were often left behind because husbands either were working in other countries or were in prison.”

I know that I must be careful in over generalizing from these conversations. It is clear that ordinary folks face family life and gender issues in a wide range of ways. No matter what the variety of patterns of behavior, rules and norms that exist, ordinary Arabic people in Palestine and Jordan certainly find these issues important.

 

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