Defining Family In Egypt
Linguistic issues. In Egypt, the widely recognized importance of family stands in direct contrast to the ambiguity of linguistic terms dealing with the institution. When referring to their families, Egyptians tend to use the Arabic word ahl, a broad term that encompasses various relationships, including immediate family related through blood ties, members of the household, and individuals related through marriage, and can, therefore, refer to up to 100 to 200 people. Another term, a'ila, is also commonly used, and can refer to either a nuclear or extended group of people, depending on context. The term a'ila carries with it the connotation of close relationship and mutual obligation.
The smallest family unit specified by Egyptian terminology is the word bait, which means "house." Bait is used to specify the actual residence of a family or the group of people who live under the same roof most of the time. Although this usually refers to the nuclear family, it can also include a spinster aunt, a widowed parent, or any other member of the extended family who is a part of the residential group. Egyptian family terms seem to be even more ambiguous than those of other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, for example, where individuals have a stronger sense of specificity of genealogy (Rugh 1984).
The Egyptian linguistic ambiguity about kinship terms allows individuals to manipulate the concept of family to fit the context and situation. Constant references to family and family name allow individuals to place one another within the society and to identify important ties and reciprocal obligations. The honor, social standing, and wealth of a family are all interconnected, making the identification with family a primary social marker for every Egyptian.
Social class and family. Class divisions within society play a vital role in Egyptian life. Egyptians have an incredibly fine-tuned sense of class, and this plays a part in every aspect of an individual's life. Primarily, these divisions are based on family, wealth, education, and experiences and/or education abroad. In addition, reputation, religious piety, and foreign ancestry (for example, having a Turkish mother, grandmother, etc.) may raise a family's social status in the eyes of others. The division by class is a distinctive but complex dividing line in the society that is constantly reflected in the written and oral media.
Furthermore, even though the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria are divided into newer and older, as well as richer and poorer sections, it is not customary for Egyptians to move, even if their financial situation improves substantially. As a result, older, well-to-do Egyptians are often found living in sections of the city that are considered middle class or, at times, even lower-middle class. Among these families, it is common for the older generation to buy apartments in their buildings for their children as they marry, thereby keeping them close. Among low-income communities, all family members routinely continue to live in the same apartment, and as the children marry, their spouses move in with the extended families. Among this group, individuals rely even more heavily on their families because they have fewer ties to other structures of power in the society.
The role of the natal family. In Cairo, the importance of family for women and men in all arenas can hardly be overestimated. Although women, upon marriage, become incorporated into the household of their husbands, they remain members of their natal families. They retain their fathers' family names after marriage and, in case of divorce or widowhood, are expected to move back to their natal home. Men bear the financial responsibility of caring for all single women in their families, even if these women have been previously married. Thus, women are brought up with the expectation that their primary ties and ultimate sources of economic security will be in their relationships to their fathers, brothers, and sons. These relationships with both female and male members of the immediate family remain the strongest links in women's lives.
The role of extended families. Some version of the extended family is the ideal among all classes, and living in the same building or neighborhood as fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, or cousins is still considered the best situation (Macleod 1991). The extended families that are often found in Egypt do not follow the traditional patterns in which genealogically related persons of two generations live together or in which married siblings form one household. Rather, extended families are based on the incorporation of unmarried relatives into a family. Widows, divorcees (especially those with no children), and bachelors do not live separately and would be stigmatized should they make this choice. Further, unmarried sons or daughters live with their parents until marriage, regardless of age. After divorce or the death of a spouse, both men and women, especially if they do not have children, are expected to return to their parents if they are still alive; otherwise, they are supposed to live with a brother, sister, or other relative. Another popular extended family pattern is the one in which a child is "borrowed" by a relative with no children of his or her own. Among lower-class people, one tends to find this phenomenon more often among grandparents who need the assistance of a child for housework. Among more well-to-do families, an uncle or aunt will offer to take care of a siblings' children for an extended time period, primarily for sentimental reasons or because the biological parents already have other pressing obligations such as an extended leave abroad.
Another common middle- and lower-class family pattern found in Egypt is the incorporation of nonrelatives, such as apprentices and work assistants, into a particular household. Such individuals have a special position, because although not all of them sleep in the house of their employer, their food and laundry is part of the household. Upper-middle and upper-class families employ domestic servants who may or may not live in the household. Often a domestic live-in servant will come from the family's natal village, even if the family has not lived there in several generations.
Migrants, a group often ignored, exhibit an alternative family pattern: they do not usually bring their families when they first enter the city from the countryside. When they arrive in the city, they tend to live in the same neighborhoods as others from their natal village. Each will live with other relatives in the local neighborhood until he becomes established and acquires a house of his own.
The continuing primacy of extended families can be explained by the fact that for most Egyptians, family provides a sense of place, a congenial setting, and a social network for financial and personal support. People often mention that life in the West, with its emphasis on individual needs and pursuits, looks very lonely and self-centered. Although the actual composition of a household may vary widely within the same class level or within a larger extended family, the structure and ideology of family remains crucial for the network of resources and sense of identity that it continues to provide.