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Michelle Obeid University of Manchester
Draft paper for EASA conference 2008. Please do not cite.
Um Yūsif swallowed her anger as she watched her confused son shuffling through a pile of papers and clicking on the buttons of his blue calculator. For a couple of hours now, he had been trying to settle his finances to establish how much money exactly his mother’s brother owed him. In the past two years, he had been working with his uncle in a stone-cutting factory owned by the latter. Yūsif was persuaded by his uncle to relinquish his previous job – transporting agricultural goods in a tired truck which Yūsif spent years saving money for – and to join him and his two brothers in his new promising business as a partner with a 10 percent share. This arrangement meant that Yūsif would not get a daily paid salary like the rest of the labourers. Rather, he would reclaim his share only when the factory started to make profit. Yūsif’s mother was sceptical bearing in mind her son’s commitments (a wife and two children), as it was not clear at what point he would start earning money. But Yūsif accepted the offer based on principles of trust in kin, and worked for two years, mainly operating the machines in the factory but also doing a number of other tasks. During the two years, the factory made hardly any profit, or so Yūsif was made to believe. Yūsif dedicated his pick-up truck, as well as his endless time and effort, to the factory without ever complaining. One day, however, he came home very upset because his uncle had brought in his own son and asked him to start operating the saw. Yūsif understood this to be a clear message to him to go home, which he did. When two days passed and his uncle did not come after Yūsif, his interpretation was confirmed: His uncle had discharged him without even addressing him directly and, worse, without giving him any of the money he owed him. And all this happened in December, a very difficult month to find work in Yusif’s town. Um Yusif’s silence finally erupted. She stood up and frantically started picking up things from the floor: pencils and school notebooks scattered by her grandchildren, orange peel and tissue paper which she dumped in the stove. She spoke vociferously and wheezed heavily as she does when her asthma attacks. They [her brothers] are the ones who came to my house and begged me to let Yūsif become their partner. I didn’t go to them. I didn’t even want him to work with them. He was doing so well with his pick-up truck…. He’s never been humiliated like this…. Now they fire him? The story became known to the public and neighbours’ comments about the actions of her brother left Um Yūsif nursing a lingering feeling of betrayal, namely on the part of her brother against her. Yūsif very quickly managed to find an alternative source of income: together with his cousin who owned a van, he bought a public car plate number – i.e. allowing him to use his vehicle for public transport – and stayed in the transport business, driving university students to a nearby city while still operating his
But with her brother. this incident had further connotations and was too difficult to forgive. This paper is an anthropological exploration of the relationship between brother and sister in a Lebanese town. Altorki 1986). Antoun 1968. the ‘romantics’ (Granqvist 1935. as Um Yūsif’s case suggests. it is perceived to be one of the closest relationships. hence being more interested in ‘the 1 This perhaps echoes a parallel trend in mainstream anthropological research. For an exploration of the relationship between brothers. This contradiction is not unlike how kinship relationships are generally perceived in the town. thus overlooking hierarchy and power entrenched in the relationships between brothers and sisters. By contrast. while recognising hierarchy. This paper will address the tensions in this relationship and contextualise the articulation of ambivalence towards the brother.52). the sense of betrayal did not seem to fade away. McKinley 1981. That her brothers and her own mother never came to check on her after they had discharged her son was more of a reminder of many preceding injustices done on their part. often deriving from a preference for sons over daughters and a general unquestioned bias towards males. soon enough after finding a new source of income. Brother/sister in Arab anthropology The relationship between siblings has been given very scant attention in the anthropological literature on the Arab World. At the heart of this relationship is an ambiguity that is worth examining. although there was no reconciliation. an intriguing fact considering the predominance of the study of kinship in that region. 52). 2 . the ‘romantic’ and the ‘patriarchal’ (Joseph 1994. Um Yusif obliged by expectations to fulfil her duty as a good daughter. On one hand.pick-up truck on demand. This story became a pretext for Um Yūsif to reflect on her family relationships but more generally on gender relations in her society. For Um Yūsif. Cohen 1965. he started visiting his uncle again. In a somewhat functionalist vein. Two months later. p. Peletz 1988.1 The very little general literature that exists tends to depict the brother/sister relationship through two lenses. Marx 1967. On the other. Meeker 1976. with some regional exceptions in south-east Asian literature. His actions toward her son were also ones against her and seemed to reconfirm the sentiments prevalent in her town towards the ambiguous relationship between brother and sister expressed through the adage ‘the brother is a trap’ [al-akh fakh]. Ahmad 1989 and El-Shami 1981) have represented the bother/sister relationship as ‘a safety valve – a relationship of love and mutuality in a presumed cold and authoritarian family system’ (Joseph 1994. p. most valued and idealised. The once unquestionable power of the brother seems to be challenged and re-thought. for breaches and conflict are inherent in the ideology of kinship. has focused the analysis on the honour/shame complex and the manner in which it seeps through social structure. see Carsten 1989. it is one of the most tense and loaded relationships. in a context of a transforming economy and gender relations. But the brother/sister relationship stands out as the conflict stems from a particular complexity unique to the expectations and obligations between the brother and sister. Moreover. For brother/sister relationships see Carsten 1991. the literature that constitutes the ‘patriarchal view’ (Fuller 1966. McKinley 1981. started to visit her mother again and to bathe her once a week.
While criticising the ‘romantics.54). however. For example. 55). Flaur. society. p. actually ‘enjoys’ submitting to and being disciplined by her brother Hanna (1994. The relationship is depicted as a complementary one in which men protected women and women upheld family honour.’ and ‘their sense of self. sexually charged and used as a matrix to judge the husband/wife relationship. identity and future called for their mutual involvement with each other’ (ibid. 56). dominance and submission. p. The boundaries between these sisters and brothers were ‘fluid. Some of the material that I present here will bear semblance to her ethnographic setting. Rather than focusing solely on either the psychodynamic or the power aspect of this relationship. as she argues.’ in this context defined ‘minimally’ as ‘the dominance of males over females and elders over juniors and the mobilisation of kinship structures.2 These processes are mediated through what she coins as ‘connectivity. a character in the Camp. 55) and to derive a sense of completeness in a cultural context where the family has precedence over the person. Joseph is credited for initiating a discussion about the brother/sister relationship in the Arab context. and possible violence of the brother but she paints a picture of complicity on the part of women. Through this relation.’ 3 ‘the psychodynamic process in which one person comes to see him/herself as part of another’ (ibid. while the brother/sister relationship is indeed valued. 56). morality. sometimes to violent extents. In this sense. hostility.social structure and culture of the Arab family rather than in psychodynamics or the brother/sister relationship per se’ (Joseph 1994. morality. the brother/sister relationship becomes an exercise in reproducing ‘patriarchy. and while idioms of ‘compassion’ and ‘protection’ are used to characterise this relationship. and idioms to institutionalise and legitimate these forms of power’ (ibid. ‘men learned that loving women entailed controlling them and women learned that loving men entailed submitting to them’ (1994. 3 Joseph builds on Catherine Keller’s concept of ‘the connective self’ (1986) which is relational and autonomous. Departing from normative behaviour necessitated punishment from brothers.. ‘cross siblings used their relationships to learn and practice socially acceptable notions of masculinity and femininity. as she is the first to shed light on the need to address this neglected relationship.’ Joseph acknowledges the power. or even. 56). and idioms’ (1994. and commitment to patrilineal kinship structures. 2 3 . Her treatment of brother-sister relations seems to portray an acceptance – almost an invitation to – and reproduction of ‘Arab patriarchy’. This paper. p.437). Suad Joseph’s contribution to the study of this topic in the Arab context is worth reflecting on. p. in the Lebanese context that she studied. pp. Joseph sets out to understand the ‘love/power’ dynamic between brothers and sisters. especially sisters. there is Carsten (1991) makes a similar argument for siblings in Langkawi where it is ‘siblingship and not filiation which constitutes the closest possible tie as well as the paradigm for moral relations’ (p. p. She proposes an approach that moves away from the dominant Western psychodynamic theories which see the parent/child relationship as the exclusive model for gender socialisation and argues that. We do not get a sense of negotiation that might take place in the context of conflict of interest. as Joseph postulates. 51-52). will depart from Joseph’s arguments in a number of ways. p. In the case I present. Parents condoned this process while they encouraged brothers and sisters to have a ‘loving’ relationship which was.
I do however leave room for negotiation and probe into the factors that have allowed for the enunciation of new discourses of doubt in a particular constellation of obligations. to smuggling across the Lebanese-Syrian borders which. since they are not.(today) a permeating scepticism surrounding this discourse and an attempt to avoid this relationship of female dependence. shops. This industry was brought to life by the process of reverse migration which took place at the beginning of the Civil War when many Arsalis who had been living in the suburbs of the capital Beirut gradually returned to take refuge in Arsal – which was far from being a battle zone – and upon their return brought with them new ideas. many residents gradually shifted to fruit production. a transition which allowed for the diversification of livelihoods. estimated at 32. Another major industry that emerged at that time was quarrying – most of it operating without licenses. both in terms of population size and residential area. Population growth and town expansion are but one feature of the rapid changes that Arsal has undergone in the last few decades. seasonal transhumance accompanied by cereal farming. trucking equipment. away from the main road. values and experiences (Baalbaki 1997). According to older people. In this earlier period. the town is expanding. These shifts gave way to informal (and illegal) livelihoods towards the end of the war and particularly. both towards its neighbouring towns on the main road and inwards toward the highlands. The Arsalis consider themselves descended from a system of herding traditionally entailing seasonal transhumance generally between the highlands of Arsal in summer and the lowlands of Syria in winter. The town has experienced considerable transformations in the livelihoods of its inhabitants. The town has a large population. southwest of Syria. They recount that in the 1940s the population was less than 4. 4 Local Municipality estimate for 2003. People had houses in the town but also moved around in the highlands as the predominant livelihood in early last century was agro-pastoralism. and culminating in 13 months’ ethnographic research conducted between 2002 and 2003. the houses were surrounded by fields of grain and cereal. Arsal is a border town that lies on the slopes of what is known as the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. a process which started before the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991). built up during the course of ten years. While I do not go as far as claiming that women are subverting the patriarchal order. the paper will address some of the structural changes that are allowing sisters to articulate the tensions inherent in cross-sibling relations. But since the 1970s. rights and power. Context: Setting and socio-economic transformations My familiarity with Arsal is based on a long-term and extensive knowledge of this town. 4 . intensified during the civil war. transport vehicles). half a century ago Arsal was a small village.0004 and constitutes vast land – about 1/22 of cumulative Lebanese land. This brought in new capital to the town and resulted in investment in small private businesses (petrol stations.000 people who were concentrated in two neighbourhoods. although it had always existed. In this regard. Today.
inflexible sexual division of labour with the husband holding a wage-earning job while the wife tends her house and children. on the other. Secondly. food cooperatives and other opportunities in NGOs. 5 . on the one hand. This paralleled increasing jobs that opened up in schools and shops as the town expanded. albeit limited.5 are internally diversified in terms of occupations and livelihoods. the aspired for household model is that of a nuclear family with two or three children and a routine rhythm that persists all year long. The two main aspects of this new model are that it is located far away from the wilderness and that its members. most importantly.Today most Arsali households adopt a multiple livelihoods strategy. These changes have had an impact on the moral economies of livelihoods and the choices people make for adopting one or another livelihood in a diversified system and. these changes have opened up avenues for women to generate income. Such households have a very defined. are murtāhīn (comfortable). Herding and agriculture reinforce a collective sentiment and an ethos of cooperation no longer available in the growing occupations such as quarrying. Employment and education – and their perils 5 According to the local Municipality. between different economic groups over the perceived relationship between production and sociality (Obeid 2006a). What is relevant for the purpose of our discussion here is that firstly. for women to generate income through a variety of activities including carpet weaving workshops. Arsal’s location and the shifts in livelihoods have attracted the attention of a myriad of development projects interested in the question of ‘sustainable human development. Off-farm occupations have become quite popular with the young generation. As ‘work’ for women gained more grounds in the town. in 2003 herders made up only 10% of the population.’ ‘Gender’ was on top of the agenda of these projects and the result was creating a forum. namely women. the older and the younger generations and. The most apparent at the time of my research was the tension between. these economic changes have liberated them from the complex web of kin relations that controls their life decisions – including education. These new opportunities for women ought not to be seen only in the light of ‘empowerment’ solely. Today. The rise of livelihoods built on individual as opposed to family labour – along with other forces of modernisation – has pushed for a new model of a ‘family’ and family relations. which tend to be male-dominated and hence preclude the involvement of families or communities. both aspects that resonate with an urban modernity (tamaddun) which young Arsalis seek. a changing attitude towards the nature of social life. marriage and occupation – in the herding system of production. due to their stability and higher income as opposed to the seasonal returns from agriculture and herding. including herding households. his trend in the organisation of production has meant that for both men and women. even those who are not capital owners. it often competed with predominant notions surrounding domesticity for women. It is known that these new economic activities have brought in capital to the town and created a class of wealthier residents with new trends in consumption. Almost all households.
although open to both men and perhaps more women. but those jobs too are quite scarce. they carry the cost of stigmatisation for failing to obtain the ultimate objective in Arsali life. mechanics. although Arsal’s economy is very sluggish and many graduates. females especially. time and money wise. 6 6 . marriage and making a house. While education is becoming essential for Arsalis and while more women are seeking jobs in order to contribute to their households. influenced by Bourdieu’s ‘theory The nearest university is two hours away which makes attendance very difficult. Recognising that the prospects are limited. even though it has special characteristics as will be argued. The private schools do not pay high salaries and the public ones usually employ teachers on a contract (ta`āqud) whereby they are paid one instalment at the end of each academic year. the most valuable of which to the Arsalis is wazīfa (employment). who are ‘the breadwinners’ and need to provide for their families on more regular basis. young men find higher education useless and either feel satisfied with a high school degree – if they manage to finish – that will enable them to carry on (quarry-related) manual labour or prefer learning skills that will enable them to work independently. even more so if it is in the public sector (the army or one of the government ministries) as this guarantees stability of income when most of the other livelihoods are seasonal. this arrangement means that a degree could take more than five years (see Obeid 1997). both educated and working women bear a social stigma. a housewife’s role included working in the wilderness.In the past. in an ‘urban7’ sense of the word. Unless they marry. as it is only unmarried women who choose to pursue work and education. students choose subjects that do not require daily attendance (such as Arabic or French literature. it was only men who were sent to school or at least taught how to read the Qur’ān. Anthropologists of the Middle East. As a result. a housewife is only expected to look after her house. in the herding model. women find pursuing university education attractive as it gives them something to do in case no job comes up when they finish secondary school. electricians (for males mainly) and nursing. But this kind of employment is quite minimal and not accessible to everyone who desires it. Against this sociological background. ‘The brother is a trap’ The brother/sister relationship is a kin relation and. School teaching presents another opportunity. we need to see it in light of the prevalent kinship ideology in Arsal. 7 As mentioned in the previous section. without any agricultural or herding responsibilities. geography or sociology) but these are not necessarily the most relevant to the market. There is a tension between the seeming leverage of being educated and employed and the recent ideal model of being a housewife. Education provides a gateway to many opportunities. kindergarten teaching (mainly for females) and the like. Also. therefore. Women often describe how work has exposed them to different people and elevated their status at home. In the new model. While women who do manage to find jobs feel that their status is enhanced within their households.6 Remunerated work does empower women and not just economically. end up at home. let us now move to the relationship between brothers and sisters in this changing context. by contrast. an arrangement more suitable for women than men. the value of education is rising for both sexes in Arsal. Unless one is financially able. more students have been enrolling in technical schools that provide training for jobs like technicians. Today.
e. however. It is in this ideal of endurance that a sense of morality is established and obligations and behaviour prescribed. nevertheless.9 and their manipulability. for example. for example. Carsten. regardless of the emotive and transactional components of those relations. like other aspects of personal identity.10 on the other: ‘kinship. The Arsali case leads us to different conclusions. colleagues and neighbours. do not make two groups of people kin. Gellner 1969. 12 People are also related by marriage in the sense that ego is related to a web of kin both agnatically and cognatically Affinal relations. He also deduces that the meaning of terms is not mechanical but rather is acquired through action and a process of individual negotiation. 8 aimed at analysing the ‘practical’ (Eickelman 1981) aspects of kinship and thus focused on lived experiences rather than the ideal constructions about kinship manifested in earlier works (Antoun 1972. The rise of studies on New Reproduction Technologies (Strathern 1992a. among others. Geertz’ interpretive approach was a major influence on anthropologists who used it to highlight the importance of negotiation in meaning. may have slipped into exaggerating the broadness of kinship relations. alliance and social links through his idiom of closeness and to ‘convolute ‘Arab Kinship’ into Middle Eastern’ (see Mundy. Messick (1993) and Bowen and Early (1993). Unlike all other existing – but not necessarily less significant – relationships such as friends. This new approach has indeed pushed for transcending rigid templates and descent just as the more recent concept of ‘relatedness’ has ‘signal[ed] an openness to indigenous idioms of being related rather than a reliance on pre-given definitions or previous versions’ (Carsten 2000. This parallels the mainstream approach of anthropologists who belong to ‘new kinship theories’11 in which they consider kinship – like gender – to be performative (Carsten 2000). See Peletz (1995) for a review of developments in kinship studies. 1995). while useful. p. on the one hand. They argued for the need to have a ‘unified analysis’ for gender and kinship as both should be separated from sexual reproduction which they are fundamentally based on. 818) in anthropology and an avoidance of comparison and theory exemplified in the works of anthropologists like Abu-Lughod (1993). 1980) is believed to have revolutionised the study of kinship through his cultural/symbolic approach to kinship which challenged the culture/biology dichotomy. argues that ‘kinship is far from being a realm of the ‘given’ as opposed to the ‘made’’ (Carsten 2004. 4). 11 Schneider (1968. kinship relations dictate specific obligations and expectations because they are perceived to be naturally prescribed and fixed. The ideology of kinship Kinship qurba (literally closeness) is perceived to be the most enduring of all relationships. p. some anthropologists of the Middle East. unless they were already related by descent prior to marriage (i. The following briefly discusses the obligations inherent in Arsali kinship relations. 10 7 . Feminist anthropologists such as Collier and Yanagisako (1987) and Errington (1989) built on his work and rejected the same separation. Aside from Bourdieu’s ‘practice’ approach. He also writes that Said’s (1985) Orientalism. Lutfiyya 1966). As illuminating as this ‘transactionalist’ approach has been. is implicated in an ongoing process of ‘becoming’’ (Eickelman 2002: 140). Kinship has a fixed nature in the sense that it is involuntary and ‘irreversible’ (Simpson 1994). has been criticized for compounding descent. See Lindholm (1995) for a critique.b. Rosen (1984) contends that the flexibility in kinship terms reflects the nature of social relations. The Arsalis express kinship in an idiom of patrilineal descent in which people construct a mental map of proximity where kin are arranged according to relations of blood (qurbat damm). 9). Gay kinship (Weston 1991) and Carsten’s ‘relatedness’ raised new questions in the field and incorporated new perspectives. Edwards et al 1993).12 Qurba is understood by the Arsalis through an ideology of descent where the largest unit on this map is the `ā’ila 8 Lindholm (1995) argues that three trends have influenced the ethnography of the Middle East. has led to a ‘recourse to narrative and biography’ (p.of practice’ (1977) and Geertz’ interpretive approach. 9 Eickelman. close kin marriage).
more important. it is reinforced by a religious ethic. achieve kinship (Carsten 2000). but. fixed understanding of kinship while the other is shaped by the performative elements of amity and sociality. The two are not mutually exclusive in such a way that the second by no means denies the first. In this sense. members of a house are genealogically closer to those of a branch who in their turn are closer to those of a lineage.’ 13 8 . While relationships are fixed. While kin in general must be treated kindly. perhaps better depicts a standard formula of kinship rules rather than actual relationships. to the Arsalis one is born into certain.’ equivalent to the English expression ‘blood is thicker than water. is the ‘head’ of the family. This description. like blood-related idioms. specifies the importance of a narrower kin circle. She provides endless support to her children and is the ultimate source of reliability. as expressed for example in the verse ‘Rida Allah wa rida al wālidayn’ (Show gratitude to me and to thy parents) (Chapter 31. Mistreating parents is considered an ungodly act. Verse 14). Rather than assume that.13 is elastic and can refer to a wide range of kin or. however. Kin bonds are lasting and enduring and will survive breaches. however. In Arsal. imply that relationships forged by choice can be terminated. kin relations and it is precisely this that prescribes the obligations required to maintain them. In between is the jubb (branch) which denotes the son of an ancestor and his descendents. the relationships themselves are not. religion. The Islamic ethic. if not all. as the Arsalis understand it. Fortes 1969). who looks after his children and receives respect and love from them. implicitly places the mother on an equal platform with the father. i. two ideals of proximity run simultaneously. through this verse. which speaks of ‘parents’. amity and transaction shapes their significance. has religious implications. But the expression silat al rahm (relations of the womb). based on moral and religious ethics. which are expected to occur from time to time.’ Maintaining kin relations. This depiction resembles an older argument made in anthropology about long-term kin relations in which ‘the actor sees himself as forced into imbalanced relationships by morality’ (Bloch 1973. One relates to a formal. no matter what happens between kin. These are often invoked when there is a need to assert the long-term nature of kinship and the idea that. they do. the ideology of kinship overrides breaches and surpasses them. Hence. which naturalises kin relations. The mother.(lineage) and the smallest is the bayt (house). is the most idealized role. on the other hand.e. hence. despite the fact that kinship is sometimes An example is the expression ‘blood can never become water. postulates that kin are by definition reliable and trustworthy. Failed expectations and breached ethics are recognised as part and parcel of the ideology of kinship as proximity creates tension. While other less imposed relationships are valued in their own right. they cannot reverse or undo their relationships. The father. 76. that between siblings and the mother. by acting out certain obligations and exchanges people ‘become’ kin. Thus. Religion also places great importance on the bond between siblings through the importance of ‘relations of the womb’ (silat al rahm). Although Arsalis consider the quality of kinship relationships to be determined by an element of negotiation and transaction. p. Islam places particular importance on respecting both parents. simply the importance of kinship. while the morality derives from a conception of its endurance. She is the symbol of sacrifice and giving (`atā’). in Arsal. The morality of kinship.
If sisters do not marry. their attention divided between their sister’s interests and those of their wife. The relationship is one of nurture. die. Antoun 1968. al-akh fakh (the brother is a trap). especially the father. the power of the adage stemming from the fact that the words ‘brother’ and ‘trap’ rhyme. the relationship is expressed in terms of ‘protection’ (himāya). the morality it postulates and its binding character constitute the ideal lines along which other relations of friendship. the brother-sister is one of the closest and most valued relationships. People use himāya ‘protection’ and hifāz ‘preservation’ much more than sharaf ‘honour’ (Abu-Lughod 1986. a sister is hanūna (compassionate) towards her brother. A woman who does not manage to marry and make her own house is picked out as especially vulnerable and in need of protection by parents and male kin in particular. neighbourliness and colleagueship are forged. The value of marriage as an ultimate fulfilment in life was mentioned earlier. Although the role of the father and the brother in protection is recognised. brothers and sisters are bound by the same ideology of closeness described above. when parents die. to the Arsalis. the most important of which is sutra (lit. operate between an ideology that naturalises the reliability and trustworthiness of kin. brothers are obliged to look after them when the parents. unmarried women will have to be In Arsal – also other areas of Lebanon – there is an underlying assumption that women will only achieve sutra upon marriage. Before marriage. Thus a threat haunts single women: It is believed that. this way round. It is within this constellation that the brother/sister relationship can be deciphered. although tensions and rifts inevitably could come about between brothers. the idiom is invoked more by sisters because women are threatened by a relationship of dependence on their brothers in a way that men are not.’ but rather in naturalised obligations (wājib). breaches of such obligations are not unlikely. 14 9 . in return. in Arsal a key distinction is made: whereas fathers look after their daughters as part of their ‘natural’ role. It is only marriage that transforms women’s status from being ‘girls15’ to ‘women. The brother. Arsali women. Tensions particular to sibling relations are expressed in the proverb that Um Yūsif used at the beginning of the paper. 15 The assumption is that women loose their virginity upon marriage and so they remain ‘girls’ in the eyes of society until they marry. But concerns about modesty.’ no matter how old they are. Like Joseph’s setting (1994). Yet. although the emotions invested in this relation are not expressed in the psychodynamic language of ‘love. their obligation to look after unmarried sisters is potentially compromised. The brother/sister complex Like all close kin relations. protection by brothers is perceived as always at risk of being disingenuous. and. also looks after the sister but. according to my observations.contested because of its imposed nature. in which conflict of interest and individualism rule relationships. But like other kin relations. almost as a mother does. When the brothers are married men. Kin relations. This is an encompassing idiom that subsumes more than one function. a reality. Ideally. cover). therefore. Fernea 1985) to refer to sexual modesty. which suggests maintaining an unmarried woman’s honour 14 (sharaf) and modesty. were generally not significant and certainly did not haunt women and their behaviour. are in fact quite wary and apprehensive about the significance and implications of men’s ‘protection’. a sister looks after a brother. especially those who are unmarried.
As love marriages take over exchange and arranged marriages in Arsal. women whose chances have decreased move away from love marriages and accept suitors whom they would not have under other circumstances: widowers. the sole responsibility is the husband’s. the ideology of patrilineal descent predominates. they become the husbands’ responsibility and the relationship is expressed in terms of a shift in belongingness. Fattūm was 31 when a suitor from a herding family proposed to her. Nervous about her decision. it is women’s natal families – the males. They recount stories about two of those women who were ‘bought’ by men from Arsal and whose parents have disowned them: ‘The men can do whatever they want with these wives and no one will ever ask about them. His parents lived five minutes away from her parents’ house and were known to be good people. especially the father and brothers – who are expected to settle women’s rights. thus mistreating and abusing her. women still expect them to take care of them. it was said. and no one will control you. sarat lahum (she belongs to them). In practice.’ A strong connection with natal families remains. This derives from the obligation of brothers to protect and look after their sisters and the far greater threat of a breach due to a conflict of interest with the brother’s wife or with their new families. When women marry. women upon marriage are not ‘given up.’ 16 10 . older men. You will live with your husband and not a sister-in-law.16 Avenues and compromises Faced with pressures to marry and ‘make a house’ on one hand and the threat of being ‘enslaved’ by a brother and his wife. while there is an underlying tension between trust and betrayal within the ideology of kinship in general. Her father owned fruit orchards and three of her younger brothers operated a garage outside their house. the ‘protection’ they need is then due from their own husbands. unmarried women find themselves looking for avenues which provide opportunities. The suitor’s family treated their daughters-in law quite well.subjected to the rough mercy of the brother who is sure to succumb to his wife’s demands at the expense of his sister. also in her 50s. These women have no ahl (kin). on the other. officially. who encouraged her by saying ‘I wouldn’t want anyone to enslave me. a practice which enables the groom and his family to have full control over the wife. despite the ideology and the language. she was reassured by her colleague. She was the eldest unmarried woman of her 11 siblings. Despite their scepticism towards brothers. she maintains her relationship with her natal family and she would still expect her kin to stand by her should she need them. The mistreatment is often construed in the image of the sister who is made to ‘serve’ (takhdum) the brother’s family by undertaking domestic duties that ought to be the wife’s. there is a particular tension in the brother/sister relationship. we sipped tea as a discussion of this issue started when a worker – a woman in her early 50s – had agreed to marry a man whose wife had passed away two months before. at least you will have your own house. At one of the NGOs. women b-titla` (depart) and belong to their husband’s houses. an unmarried woman. Arsalis are very critical of some villages in Syria where men ‘sell’ their daughters by receiving a marriage settlement.’ These concerns haunt younger woman as well. But Fattūm spent sleepless nights before she made a The importance of maintaining ties with natal families is expressed particularly strongly whenever the topic of marriage in Syria comes up. Even when a woman’s belongingness – and responsibility – shifts to her husband’s family upon marriage. But. The apprehension of unmarried sisters is understood in a context where it is believed that when women marry. or polygamous marriages. but not without compromise. In this sense. Particularly if problems occur in marriage.
Even so. Fattūm then accepted the offer. The suitor’s house was known for the fact that it was men who milked and not women – milking being one of the most demanding tasks for herders. one cannot know its insides until one breaks it. is attributed to fate. despite the limited opportunities. Hence.20 hence the centrality of marriage to this society. She was getting older and no other suitor was proposing. marriage is only revealed after it takes place.’ although not any less respected. elevated status within the house does not compensate for a lower status within society as far as these women remain ‘girls’ who have not lived up to values of domesticity. bearing in mind the risks of declining. do receive sympathy feel for their qillat nasīb (lack of lot). 19 Other sayings reflect the same idea of the unknown. ‘I am not used to living alone in the wilderness. 21 So unmarried ‘spinsters.17 All she needed to do was replicate her housework in the village and approach the situation with an open mind about living outdoors. it seems to put women under more pressure. an occupation she was apprehensive to embark on. death.e. But the logic of ‘fate’ has room for those who are not lucky enough. Work also enhanced their status as active decision-makers in the household. It must be noted here that marriage. 20 Nasīb is also used for all sorts of events such as divorce. it must be stated that not all brothers will ‘dig a trap’ for their sisters. particularly those working in carpet weaving and food cooperatives had a respectable status in their homes and some even acted as breadwinners. seek to be economically productive. Female altruism Having explored notions surrounding the tension in the brother/sister relationship. good luck. In fact. although perceived as the right route to a healthy life-cycle. The fatalistic usage of the expression ija al nasīb18 ‘the coming of fate’ to signify marriage tends on one hand to add an element of mystery to the institution of marriage. many of the women I worked with. etc. Although this outlook applies to both genders. an idea.decision. bad luck. ‘marriage is like a battīkha (watermelon). ba`d ma ija al nasīb ‘the fate has not yet come. Many of those who do not marry.’ Her parents made inquiries and assured her that she was not to worry about heavy work.’ i. which they believe will give them a degree of ‘clout’ in their homes and spare them this feared exploitation on the grounds of being single and financially needy. the expression reflects a sense of waiting. The implication here with cases like these is that the compromise of being with an otherwise undesired husband is better than the permanent status of being a dependent who will be exploited. by no means am I arguing that unmarried women are social rejects. On the other hand.’ It is as if one’s fate is only realized once marriage takes place. in a tent-house. for like fate marriage constitutes the unknown. ‘and I do not know how to do any of their [herders’] work. 21 See Sa`ar (2004) for a discussion of the diverse roles unmarried Israeli Palestinian women undertake as ‘spinsters. which defied the new model of ‘modern’ households. She had no particular problem with the suitor or his family but she did consider very seriously and with reservations the fact that she was going to become a herder. The expression ija al nasīb and its negative are used in this context as pronounced in colloquial Lebanese rather than classical Arabic. But the overSome households could own up to 1000 heads that need to be milked up to four times a day. whether or not educated.’ 18 17 11 . as mentioned previously. especially in employing its negative to describe unmarried people.19 This type of apprehension is arguably pertinent to a setting where marrying a complete stranger was not uncommon (particularly through exchange and arranged marriages).’ she fretted.
at the same time. Among us. is construed along ideals of trust. who have passed the age of marriage. it is abnormal for a woman to demand her rights. who had been complaining about women’s complicity. Since there are tensions between Personal Status Law 22 and Civil Law.’ Although women can in principle seek litigation. in Arsal there seems to be a greater emphasis on the moral. It is harām because religion [Islam] says we should give them. He admitted. as Arsalis are Sunni Muslims who generally think of themselves as believers and followers of Islam. One woman shocked her family once when she approached her brother and asked for her share of their father’s inheritance. women never really ask for their rights and men overlook this issue. But when they were about to go to the official clerk (kāteb `adl) to make the formal land transfer. thus exploiting the sister and 22 A law based on religious laws. give the daughters a herd upon marriage. ‘In our context. ‘the truth is we are not very fair because we ignore [daughters’ rights]. Such sacrifice extends to material rights – particularly inheritance – which are due to women under Islamic Law. I had asked him whether the Arsalis. Even I would give land back if my brothers gave it to me!’ The only property that is given to unmarried women is the parental house. Maher 1974) and the jural (Mundy 1995) in shaping and governing kinship ties. like other herding societies. Unmarried women. especially the brother. fathers play around the system by ‘selling’ houses to their daughters. This is in opposition to the sacrifice (tadhiya) that women in general are expected to make. but it is unusual. When I asked the narrator why his aunt had demanded her rights in the first place if she was going to relinquish them later. no woman would actually do such a thing because it would contravene her role as righteous daughter and sister and the expected female altruism manifested in relinquishing such rights. Her brother. but we don’t.’ They expect to rely on kin. called for a meeting with the other brothers who all conceded their sister’s rightful demand. like other kinship relations. but. But the breaking of the promise is inherent within it. While other ethnographies on the Arab World have shown the importance of the material (Peters 1980. The reluctance to give women property was ‘confessed’ to me by a herder before the engagement of his daughter. Matters considered ‘personal status’ include marriage and inheritance and are adjudicated by religious courts.riding self-interest of a brother is at the heart of how the relationship with his sister is conceived. to look after and protect them. although people are aware of rules of inheritance in Islamic law (a female is entitled half the share of a male). it imparts a tension between brothers and particularly unmarried sisters who abide by models of female altruism thus relinquishing their material rights in return for the promise of protection of the brother upon the death of the father. seem to be trapped in a web of pressures revolving around their lower status of ‘incompleteness’ for not ‘fulfilling their fate. 12 . Khawla. their sister changed her mind. he felt that she may have just been ‘testing the limits’. it is usually a one-off case and is considered an anomaly. added rather sarcastically. The brother/sister relationship. a ‘generous’ man might give a daughter two or three heads. reverting to the expected model of female altruism. it differs from one religious sect to another. for insignificant amounts (such as the equivalent of one USD) in order to secure the daughters’ rights after their death. When women hold land. as far as native theories go. But. being a fair man. therefore. compassion and protection. because the brother would ultimately privilege his own interests when his loyalty is pledged to his own wife.
other stories that she tells seem to surface from a deeper level. tend to the herd and take charge of household chores from the age of seven. I would like to go back to Um Yūsif and consider why it is that women who belong to her generation. was becoming a renowned medical doctor.enacting an expected moral failure. 1987 p. It is unclear whether Um Yūsif’s mother was the heir. though only recently brought to the surface. Um Yūsif’s mother decided to divide the family house into shares. while her brother who was almost her age.7). Perhaps it is this realisation that triggers reflection on their own roles and relationships within these changes. or whether she just succumbed to the older brothers’ decision on dividing the late father’s property. Um Yūsif recounted stories and decisions that took place before her marriage more than 45 years ago but about which she was still bitter. ‘How can you divide the house among the three of you [the three eldest brother] when there 23 24 A Saudi-owned Islamic TV station that broadcasts religious educational programs 24 hours a day. That her own mother took no stand against the brother who upset Um Yūsif was yet another manifestation of those long standing discriminations. love marriages and generally more choice than their female ancestors had. She remembered how she was made to carry coal.’ Rethinking the power of the brother In this section. In all cases. Um Yūsif protested to her mother. while her emergent sense of discontent could easily be attributed to exposure to the modern media and the general tatawwur (progress) of the village. 13 . satellite television – especially her favourite station ‘Iqra’23 – has made Um Yūsif realise what she missed out on: ‘Why do I have to wait for television to learn to read a verse or two from the Qur`ān when I could have learnt all of it?’ This kind of gender bias was not specific to Um Yūsif but was practised on her entire female generation to such an extent that I do not know of a single literate woman of her age. are still articulating the tension in the brother/sister relationship. we cannot in this case understand kinship without an account of gender. The structural changes in the village have given way to changes in gender roles and household relations. in a way. when it is unmarried sisters who are usually the ones to express such apprehension. Um Yūsif sees her mother as the person in charge. married and established. she reverted to incidents in her past in which she and her sisters shared the position of victims of male bias and favouring sons over daughters. about their fate with their brothers. it seems. work. Whenever Um Yūsif talked about her problem with her brother. even anxiety. economic and political systems’ (Collier and Yanagisako. They become analytically intertwined and ‘realized together in particular cultural. Years after Um Yūsif’s father died. women negotiate avenues to elevate their status but this often comes about with compromises ranging from accepting undesirable husbands or finding economic opportunities that give them clout in their households but bring them the stigma of the ‘spinsters who have to work.24 but these were unequal. In this context. She and her sisters were deprived of any school education: now. So. Women today seem to have access to lives which were entirely different to their mothers: education. At the heart of some of Um Yūsif’s perceived injustices is the way that her mother distributed family resources and – therefore – her emotions. However.
Um Yūsif believes her mother was unfair because she denied her daughters. In both cases. Therefore. This kind of behaviour is highly frowned upon in the town today. As daughters. Um Yūsif ’s material shares were not starkly different from those of her cohort. she does so only to contest the moral breaches committed by her brothers and mother. No brother can force a sister into marriage or exercise any form of violence over her with impunity (social and moral at least). Um Yūsif finds it appropriate to rethink her relationship with her natal family and to articulate ambivalence towards the unquestioned power of the brother. for example. that. Education and property were not ‘rights’ that were granted to women in her generation. a source of self-esteem and a compensation for not marrying. she raises concerns that contest her mother’s and perhaps also the larger society’s gender bias towards sons. equally. at her age and position in life-cycle. the men depend on the women.are ten of us? None of the daughters received a share. As mentioned above. on the one hand by their exposure to changes in the village and the values they learn through their window to the world – satellite television. Um Yūsif considers it a form of breach of the expected roles and a failure on the part of her male kin: her husband left her to deal with raising a family and her brothers failed her at several 14 . which mainly derives from an ideology of descent.’ Um Yūsif. their lives are cast in the shadow of their male kin.’ lives in the house anyway and she has a steady job in a nearby city. Against all protests. While both Um Yūsif and women like Khadīja do not necessarily break away from cultural constructions of gender roles. a level of comfort she could have easily provided. one of whom is married with children. a ‘spinster. Except for education. The married ones were automatically ruled out and the youngest. Her unmarried daughter. Now that the village in general is changing and. whether through descent or affinity. who works at a local NGO. their own life experiences and the roles their own daughters are assuming have given them new insights on notions of ‘equality’ and ‘justice. combining gender and kinship perspectives. to the benefit of her sons. for example. they have to succumb to their brothers’ whims. since assumptions about gender and the way people construct them lie at the core of kinship (Collier and Yanagisako 1987). visiting her occasionally (sometimes as rarely as twice a year). It is interesting. On the other hand. therefore. they do nevertheless question them. Khadīja. women today. While Um Yūsif raises her claims through talking about material matters. in principle at least. makes enough money to provide for her mother’s house and to help her two brothers. In Um Yūsif’s house. This is reinforced. Should ‘fate fail them’ by their becoming ‘spinsters’. social relations. lives in a ‘feminised household’ in which she has had to raise four children in the absence of a husband who chose to live in the capital for more than 30 years. women are expected to shift belongingness to their husbands’ lines. was forced to marry a cousin at the age of 11 only because her brother decided to offer her as a replacement for the cousin’s bride whose parents changed their mind last minute. While her daughter sees this as a sign of independence. The unquestioned power of the brother was also articulated by other women of her generation. This issue confirms the anthropological claim that gender and kinship can only be understood through a unified analysis. her brother refused to break his word and honour and left her with a miserable marriage that has survived 40 years and an everlasting feeling of betrayal. do not receive more than Um Yūsif did.
The changes in gender roles and the new opportunities available for women today. 15 . ‘God sees. have given room to rethink the tensions inherent in the brother/sister relationship in which women are articulating scepticism towards the dependency on the brother created by the lack of status from being an unmarried woman in a society that values domesticity. as limited as they are. Despite her feelings. resigned to the idea that in the end only God grants justice. reconciliation had taken place albeit without recognition of the injustice. Um Yūsif’s grievances become meaningless. On the occasion of the Īd al Fitr. Changes in livelihoods have had an impact on the organisation of production and the social fabric. But. the paper hopes to make a case for the importance of documenting changes in how kinship relations are conceived in different ethnographic contexts. reliability and moral obligations and a reality which favours individualism and a breaking away from the family unit. Conclusions This paper has explored the relationship between brothers and sisters in a Lebanese town which has been undergoing economic and social transformations. Rather thank taking ‘Arab kinship’ or kinship in general for granted. Um Yūsif agreed to a reconciliation with her mother and brother without a material settlement or compensation: she did this only to prove the power of the moral (and religious) and the importance of living up to the ideal of kinship that values siblinghood. the feast that falls after Ramadan. breaching trust and ‘betraying a sister’ is no longer tolerated as it once used to be. The paper teases out the tensions created between a fixed ideology of kin solidarity which presumes trust.’ Um Yūsif said. in a context where a particular morality governs kinship. I argued that we can only understand the brother/sister relationship in light of the analytical links between gender and kinship as they can only be constituted together within particular social and economic contexts. While a brother is expected to look after his own interest. His initiative and Um Yūsif’s hospitality in return were a statement that the problem was over. where he chatted with her and her children informally and then left.’ she concluded.times of need in her life. The tensions become all the more tangible with the pressures of abiding by the moral and the religious implications of kinship ideals. The problem between Um Yūsif’s son and her brother opened old wounds and pushed her to rethink her relationships and the associated injustices inflicted by her brothers and her mother. her brother paid a visit to her house where he was offered sweets. ‘But God has asked us not to cut the relations of the womb (qat` silat al rahm).
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