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The family is the oldest social institution in the world. Throughout history, the family has been the foundation of society, caring for its members during their lifetimes in the same way that modem nations care for their citizens. In fact, a nation or a state is often described as a large family, and a family is often described as a society in miniature. When the family is thriving, society supposedly thrives; when the family is declining, the society supposedly is also on the decline. But what does "family" mean? We tend to forget that it is a general term which means different things in different societies. In the West, "family" has come to be defined simply as "parents and their children" or a single parent and a child. In the Middle East, the Arabic word for family, ahl or ahila, is a more inclusive term and can be used to mean "relatives, family, wife, inhabitants; people, especially persons of a special group or place; members, followers; possessors." At its ultimate level, it is the urnrna, the family of believers in Islam. But however and wherever defined, the family is a human invention dealing with human needs, and its basic functions concern the survival and reproduction of the group. The Middle East is an area of great diversity, from Morocco on the Atlantic, across the southem Mediterranean to Turkey and south and east to Arabia and Pakistan. Ecology, dialect and language, economic position from rich to poor, divide the area, but its constants are the majority religion of Islam and the institution of the larger extended family unit. In the Middle East today, therefore, the issue of the family is not a narrow "people's" issue, divorced from economic and political matters, as it tends to be in Westem society. The issue of the family is a political and economic issue of fundamental importance, for the extended family remains not only the basic unit of social organization, but the focus of the social change currently in progress throughout the area, from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco. Khurshid Ahmad, Director-General of the Islamic Foundation at the University of Pakistan, says, "We are living in a period of cultural crisis...the very foundations of contemporary society are being threatened from within and without. The family, as a basic and most sensitive institution of culture, is being undemlined by powerful and destructive forces." President Muammar Qadhafi of Libya sees the family as a kind of organic growth which provides, along with the Qur'an, a basis for the improvement of the human condition in modem times. "Societies," he writes in the Green Book, "in which the existence and unity of the family are threatened, in any circumstances, are similar to fields whose plants are in danger of being swept away or threatened by drought or fire, or of withering away..." Modern critics such as Hisham Sharabi, Palestinian political scientist, attribute the plight of the Arab world to "repressive socialization and childrearing practices," and Fatima Mernissi, Moroccan feminist, sees the family as an ultimate effort by Islamic thinkers to limit women's freedom. Most politicians in the Middle East have seen it to their advantage to support the ideal of the family, just as Western politicians do, but in the Middle East family issues are
acknowledged as being of greater political, economic and ideological importance. One might well ask, why all the fuss? In America, "family" problems seem peripheral, and issues such as family violence, child abuse, the care of the elderly, and teenage pregnancies are relegated to the bottom of politicians' lists of priorities, below highways, redistricting, and interest rates. The view that the family is of basic economic and political importance seems rather unbelievable to us, despite our pervasive ideal of the family as a mirror of society. But the difference in political priorities and rhetoric between the West and the Middle East has to do, as was stated earlier, with the functions and powers of the family group. In traditional Middle Eastem society, the family as a basic unit perfomms many of the functions now expected of the state. For thousands of years, in most societies around the world including Middle Eastem society, the family group, in the words of Arab sociologist Halim Barakat, "has constituted the basic socio-economic unit of production and (has been) at the center of social organization in all three Arab patterns of living (bedouin, rural and urban) and particularly among tribesmen, peasants, and urban poor. As such the family also constituted the dominant social institution through which persons and groups inherited their religious, social class and cultural identities." In the past, and to a great extent today, the family provided economic and emotional support to its members, which might consist of groups as small as twenty or as large as 200, for not only mother, father, and children were included in the definition of the group, but also grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, to several degrees on both sides of the marital connection. An individual, as Barakat points out, "inherited" his or her religious, class, and cultural identity, which was reinforced by the customs and mores of the group. In exchange for the allegiance of its members, the group served as an employment bureau, insurance agency, child and family counselling service, old people's home, bank, teacher, home for the handicapped and insane, and hostel in time of economic need. Men and women both remained members of their natal families for all of their lives, even after marriage. A divorced woman returned to her natal family, which was responsible for her support until remarriage. A divorced man returned to his natal family, and his parents cared for his children. In exchange for these services, the individual members were expected to place the group's survival above their personal desires, expecially at the time of marriage, and to uphold the reputation of the family, by behaving properly, "maintaining the family honor." This, of course, was the ideal. In everyday life, ideals do not always work out. Some members always rebelled and refused to marry the person chosen for them by their family. Some groups did not take in the divorced members after the divorce, sometimes out of poverty, sometimes out of spite. Vengeful fathers did not always pass on authority over land or shops to their sons. Maintaining the family honor sometimes resulted in tragedy. And the care of handicapped and elderly members often put undue stress upon younger members of the family. Yet the institution persisted because it filled people's needs when no other such institution existed, either in Ottoman times, or during the time of Western colonialism. The shift that took place in the West, the assumption of economic and social responsibilities,
first by the religious hierarchy and then by the secular state, has not taken place in the same manner in the Middle East. Therefore, the current debate on the place and function of the family is a crucial debate, for it involves not only the suggestion that these responsibilities shall be passed from the family unit to the state, but also the definition of basic individual rights: those of women, men, and children. The status of women is not an isolated issue but stands at the core of the whole debate; for the woman has always been seen as the center of the family unit, the hub around which all its economic, personal, and political activities revolved. Today life is changing radically in the Middle East. War and revolution have taken their toll, as have nearly two centuries of Westem colonialism. Turkey became a republic in 1922, and yet the family remains the principal source of identity, even for young people, according to an unpublished study by Sandra Danforth of political loyalties in recent years. Effects of the Iranian revolution are still being assessed, but it seems clear from a recent account by Tabari and Yeganeh that the family is still needed for economic and social support. All over the area the family still attracts loyalty. For example, Barakat's 1980 study of Lebanese university students showed that young people were "much less alienated from the family than from other social institutions, such as religion, politics and society as a whole." But the debate on the future of the family is in progress, for a redefinition of roles has become necessary as the largely self-sufficient agricultural society disappears and the area becomes more industrialized, more dependent on other nations' goods. The degree and intensity of change has placed much stress on the older stabilizing institutions, religion and the family. What is happening in the Middle East over a single generation has taken place in the West, more slowly and gradually, over a period of nearly 200 years, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This economic change has benefitted some people in the Middle East and disenfranchised others. In oil rich countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for example, per capita income is so high that only one member of the family, the traditional member, the father, needs to work so that the family may survive. Women in Kuwait have gone to work at what they define not as jobs of economic necessity, but as "career-fulfilling jobs," much as Westem women have done. In Saudi Arabia, however, women are not allowed to work in public, in the presence of strange men, for this is seen as violating their traditional role as wife and mother. Egypt, on the other hand, has had such a staggering increase in population and cost of living that a single income is not enough, in most cases, for thefamily to support itself. Hence, more and more, Egyptian women are taking jobs outside the home, a movement unthinkable a generation ago. Although a few Egyptian women have entered the professions of law, engineering, and medicine as well as teaching, business, and the diplomatic service, the great majority of Egyptian women work, like Western women, at lesser-paying jobs in industry, in shops and offices, and in the service sector (street-sweepers, janitors, servants, hospital aides). And these jobs are performed simply in order to put bread on the table. Thus, regional economic conditions influence the practice of the family ideal. Nadia Youssef in Women and Work in the Third World has pointed out that in the 1960s the Muslim world had the lowest rates of women working outside the home of any
area in the world (Egyptian women, for example, constituted only 3.5% of the public labor force). But in the past ten years, the figures have risen so rapidly that local censuses have not kept up with them. Official rates of Egyptian women's employment in industry alone were given as 18% of the total industrial work force in 1981. Estimates of women's participation, part or full time, in the overall labor force, including agriculture, have reached between 30% and 40% in Egypt and are still rising as economic necessity forces more women to take jobs. Economic pressures that have forced women into the workplace, whether or not they wished to work, have also sent men abroad as migrant laborers. In 1979, 1.4 million Egyptians were working abroad. Given such radical change, with women in the workplace and many of the men away from home for long periods of time, how can the family unit still be an important institution? Some of the same anxieties that prompted Newsweek magazine to focus an entire issue on "Who's Minding the Kids" are propelling the Middle Eastem media and Middle Eastem leaders to reassess ideals and goals in view of current events and upheavals. Economic affluence, as in Saudi Arabia, and economic poverty, as in Egypt, prompt the same reaction on the part of fearful citizens: the phenomenon of women working outside the home is destructive to the family unit and to the raising of children and must be stopped. Hence the debate in the Middle East today. Some thinkers argue, in the press, on television, and in leamed academic joumals, that women must not be allowed to work outside the home; men must reassert their role as supporters and protectors of the family. Others, equally fervent, argue that Islam allows for participation by both men and women in the fommation of a better future for all, and that today, women are needed to work so that the family can stay together, whether this is seen as the nuclear family, the extended family, or the family of all Muslims. The debate on the family concems not only women's status, but the laws of most Islamic countries, and the issues of education and family planning. Current laws on the books in every country except Tunisia, Turkey, and Lebanon are based in whole or in part on Shari'a or Islamic canon law, a compendium of laws based on the Qur'an, the hadiths jtraditions and sayings of the Prophet!, and precedent and consensus. Family law within the Shari'a controls divorce, inheritance, child custody, and the practice of polygarny. Women and men arguing for reform state that only if women have equal access to divorce, child custody, and inheritance, can the traditional family structure survive and become viable in modem society. Women and men arguing for maintenance of the old system state that the old laws allowing polygamy, easier divorce proceedings for men than women, and unequal inheritance by women should remain in force if the ideal Islamic society is to be realized. This debate, about women's place, is basically about the role and function of the family in a society where the role of the state is increasing. Family planning is obviously related to the debate. Some argue that limiting the size of the family and the practice of abortion is not only forbidden by God but weakens the family unit. Others argue that family planning and abortion are allowed by God when the survival of the family is at stake. And here they cite modem statistics to support their views: a 3% annual birth rate in Egypt, for example, or the doubling of the population of Morocco in a single generation.
Education—public education for both men and women—is playing a key role in all of the arguments of the family. For education serves as a kind of mediator in the debate. No one argues against education in the Middle East: the Qur'an itself states, "Educate your child for tomorrow." But the way in which education is administered is still a subject for debate. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to attend classes with men, or even to have male instructors in the room; some classes for women in the universities thus are held on television. Poorer countries do not have such a choice; coeducation is found in every country outside the Gulf States, often for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons. And boys still go on to higher education more than girls though this tendency was the same in the West until fairly recently. While the debate rages, ordinary people have to go on living: working, making love, raising children, going to school. Lives are slowly changing under the impact of industrialization: a sharp increase in the number of women working outside the home, the rise of education and the media, the decline of rural and the rise of urban society (nearly half of all Egyptians now live in cities), greater geographic as well as social mobility. Some Middle Eastem and Westem social scientists see these trends as optimistic signs of modemization and westemization, an improvement over the old ways of tradition and a large extended family structure. But within the context of the Middle East today, the existence of the family unit still is a plus for many millions of people, both poor and rich. "In times of change," one Moroccan woman said, "I need my family more than ever. My mother takes care of my children so I can work, and our cousin from the country has come to live with us so she can go to school in the city." Many people see social mobility, urbanization, women working outside the home, and education as ways of improving and strengthening the family unit rather than vice versa. Thus, contrary to what happened in America, the Middle Eastem family seems not to be disintegrating but rather regrouping and reorganizing in answer to modem needs. In places where the unit itself is deteriorating, due to war and natural disasters, the values and the functions of the family are resurfacing in different forms. Migrant workers in foreign cities group together around old family ties; men entering new industrial jobs find work in the same plants for their sisters, cousins, or uncles. For men of elite political groups, family ties continue to be important in fomming and maintaining power bases. Newcomers to the city make "connections" through family members, or by providing services fommerly provided by family members. Men who are newcomers, in the city, without family, may turn to religious "brotherhoods," groups, where, as they themselves say, "they feel like one of the family." Suad Joseph, in her work in a working family class district outside Beirut which had once been a refugee camp, found that women without family ties tended to form kinlike ties with neighbors. These adaptations of the family should not seem foreign to Americans, who have witnessed similar adaptations in times of traumatic change. The settling of the westem frontier, for example, was not done by individuals, for no single person could have survived alone, but by groups: groups of people with family, economic, or military and national ties who banded together for common survival. Yet in the West we tend to romanticize or idealize the lone individual, and forget the supporting groups and relationships. Certainly this is what Middle Eastemers are doing today: organizing themselves, as all
human beings have done in times of crisis, for survival. And in that struggle, they have some assets. One is an interdependent and flexible social institution that seems still, despite transfomlations throughout history, to be the best way to provide for individual needs as well as group survival. If Islam is viewed as the soul of the Islamic Middle East, then the wider extended family might be seen as its body. And, says a Moroccan merchant, "The govemments may come and go, Spanish, French, Moroccan, but my family has been here for 400 years and it is still all I can rely upon." The family unit, then, is the social institution to begin with if one is interested in people and people's lives in the Middle East today. It is also the institution to study if one is interested in social, political and economic change in the area, for it daily shapes, fommulates, and articulates that change. Middle Eastem leaders may argue about the purposes of the institution of the family and the roles women and men should assume within its framework, but they have not as yet found an institution to replace it, either in real life or in ideology. One may question as well whether the state in the West has adequately replaced the family in real life, despite the continuing ideal of the family as a mirror of society. Elizabeth W. Fernea Bibliography Ahmad, Khurshid: Family Life in Islam. Pakistani Publishing House, n.d. Barakat, Halim: "The Arab Family" in Women and the Family in the Muslim Middle East. Elizabeth Fernea, editor, New Voices of Change. University of Texas Press, 1984. Inkeles, Alex and David Smith: Becoming Modern. Harvard University Press, 1974. Lerner, Daniel: The Passing of Traditional Society. The Free Press, 1958. Memissi, Fatima: Beyond the Veil. Schenkman Publishing Company, 1975. Qadhafi, Muammar: The Green Book, Part III, The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory, n.d. Tabari, Azar and Nahid Yeganeh: In the Shadow of Islam: The Women's Movement in Iran. Zed Press, 1982. Youssef, Nadia: Women and Work in Developing Societies. Berkeley, 1974.
SUGGESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION 1. Why is the subject of the family a political issue in the Middle East? Is it a political issue in the United States? 2. The role of women is changing in the Middle East and in the United States. How? Give some examples. What effect does this have on the mother, the father, and the children? 3. Some people say the family cares for its members from birth until death. Is this true in the Middle East? In the United States?
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