4 minute read

Ethnic Variation/Ethnicity

Middle Eastern Families

Until the late twentieth century, Middle Eastern family research focused on Arab, Iranian, Lebanese, and Armenian families. Of the Middle Eastern families studied, the best known is the Arab family. Arabs may be described as a heterogeneous group that is a "multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic mosaic population" (Abudabbeth and Nydell 1993). The term Arab is based on the person's language and culture and is not an ethnic origin: as a result, there is a great deal of diversity among Arabs. One distinctive difference is religion.

Between the seventh and tenth centuries one of the most profound historical changes in the Arab world took place: the spread of Islam. The essence of Islam, as preached by the Prophet Mohammed, was transmitted through the Qur'an (believed to be the literal word of God). The Prophet's own sayings (hadith) and practices (sunna) were combined with the Qur'an to elaborate or extend the laws of society. Except by implication, the Qur'an does not contain explicit doctrines or instructions—basically, it provides guidance. However, the hadith and sunna provide concrete commands on issues related to the rights and responsibilities of marriage, the division of property, the daily habits of believers, and the manner in which people should treat one another (Ali 2001).

Although many Arabs report following the Islamic religion, there are approximately 14 million Arab Christians. Those following Christianity are primarily reported in Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. The largest Christian congregation in the Middle East is the Coptic Orthodox Church with nearly 6 million believers.

Arabic is the official language of the Middle East. Arabs are extremely conscious of their language and consider it a great art and their greatest cultural achievement (Nydell 1987). Although spoken Arabic language is as varied as the different parts of the Arab world, classical Arabic and written Arabic are the same in all the Arab countries and are used for formal speech, broadcasting, and writing (Rouchdy 1992).

The Arab family is the dominant social institution through which persons inherit their religion, social class, and identity. The family is often thought of as a patriarchal, hierarchical pyramid (as far as age and sex are concerned) and what befell one member is thought to bring honor or shame to the entire family. The communication style of many Arabic families tends to be hierarchical in nature. This vertical style can lead to miscommunication between persons in authority (parents) and subordinates (children).

Marriage (nikah) is seen as a highly religious and sacred ceremony central to the growth and stability of society. It legalizes sexual intercourse and the procreation of children. Hanafi law allows a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman as long as she belongs to the people of the Book ( Jewish or Christianity). Women, however, are not allowed to marry a man who is not Muslim (Esposito 1982). Traditionally, Islamic law allows men to marry four wives. However, the Qur'an qualifies multiple marriages by suggesting a man not marry more than one woman unless he is able to treat them equally.

The traditional Iranian family is patriarchal. Fathers are considered the dominant force and completely control the family. No one questions his authority over his wife, children, and grandchildren (Hillman 1990). He is a strict disciplinarian and he demands respect and obedience from the family. Although seen as the enforcer of domestic rules, he is also affectionate and caring. When the father dies, the eldest son inherits the authority and accepts responsibility for his mother and any unmarried siblings.

Iranian families. In Iranian marriages, women are generally ten to fifteen years younger than their partner. Upon marriage, the two families unite to combine their wealth and increase their power. To marry, a woman must obtain permission from her father first. Generally, women reside with the family of their husbands. According to religious law, women are required to be submissive to their husband. They are taught to take care of the domestic responsibilities at home and to be ever cognizant of their actions publicly and privately. Women address men more formally in public and are taught to never openly disagree with a mate. In difficult situations, women often use children or in-laws to intercede on their behalf.

In Iran, an individual's life is dominated by the nuclear and extended family relationships. People rely on family connections for position, security, influence, and power. It is not uncommon to see an extended family that consists of a married couple and any of their children (both married and unmarried), and grandchildren. In the extended family, authority is almost always given to the oldest male (Hillman 1990). He can discipline his siblings, as well as any nieces or nephews who reside in the household. The responsibility of the male head of household is to unify the family and to resolve internal conflict.

Lebanese families. The typical Lebanese views family as an extension of him or herself. The family is patrilineal, endogamous, and extended, with complex kin relationships that help sustain traditional functions of the culture (Hassan, Healy, and McKenna 1985). The extended family is a means of support and often provides financial resources, childrearing support, and assistance during medical emergencies.

Although other religions have been reported by Lebanese families, Christianity is the most represented religion. Lebanese Christians have a strong affiliation with the church and look to religion as a source of their identity (Abridge 1996).

Armenian families. The traditional Armenian family structure usually consists of several generations living together within the same household. The family is strongly patriarchal, with elder males dominating the affairs of the family. Most marriages are arranged, and a new bride is expected to live with her husband's family, where she is clearly subservient to the eldest female in the household (Miller and Miller 1993).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsEthnic Variation/Ethnicity - Origins And Importance Of Ethnicity, African Families, Asian Families, Latino Families, Middle Eastern Families