Family & Gender Roles

Family is an integral aspect of the Arab culture and in traditional Arab society, men and women have well-defined spheres of activity and decision making.

Arabic family

The Arab Family

The family is the basic societal unit and is very strong and close-knit. Loyalty to the family is often considered more important than loyalty to a person's nation or oneself.  Arab families are often large and strongly influence individuals’ lives, as all activities revolve around family life, and any member’s achievement advances the reputation of the entire family. Family is a source of reputation and honour, as well as financial and psychological support.

Gender Roles

The roles of men and women in Arab cultures have traditionally been governed by a patriarchal kinship system that had already existed in the regions to which Islam spread. Many of the variations in the status of women are due to local traditions and social customs, as well as the degree to which societies are Westernised – for example, the status of women in Lebanon and Tunisia is markedly different to that of women in Saudi Arabia.

In general, across Arab cultures, men are expected to provide for their families; women, to bear and raise children; children, to honour and respect their parents and grow up to fulfil their adult roles, which includes marriage.

Women’s Power in the Family

Although Arab women are not highly visible in public

International Women's Day in Egypt
International Women's Day in Egypt. Source: Al Jazeera English (International women day in Egypt) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

life in the Arab world, their influence is not similarly restricted in private life. Inside the family, women’s power is exercised as they usually have the decisive voice in matters relating to household expenditures, the upbringing and education of children, and sometimes the arrangement of marriages.

Men are responsible for providing the family’s material welfare; even if a woman has her own money, she does not necessarily contribute to family expenses. Many women do have their own money, and many own property. For Muslim women, Islamic law states clearly that they retain sole control of their money and inheritance after marriage. The older a woman becomes, the more status and power she accrues. All older women in the family are treated with deference, but the mother of sons gains even more status.

Unlike Western assumptions about Arab society, tradition-oriented Arab men and women do not view social customs and restrictions as repressive but as an appropriate acknowledgement of the nature of women.