Marriage celebration, Djerba, Tunisia
Marriage celebration, Djerba, Tunisia. Source: Souad Anane Lesina [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

All celebrations across the diverse communities of Arabic speaking backgrounds revolve around the key institutions of family and religion. Families celebrate marriage, birth and religious festivals according to rituals and customs of their religious traditions. For more information on important religious celebrations see our Religion section, in which we outline the most significant beliefs, observances and festivities of Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, the Druze and other religious minorities of the Arab world.

We provide here a brief outline of the celebrations of marriage and birth, with important information on key features of the marriage contract and naming conventions of newborn children. This may assist you in further understanding the customs and traditions that influence family dynamics in Arabic speaking families.

  • Marriage Open or Close
    Wearing of engagement ring during wedding ceremony in Tunisia
    Wearing of engagement ring during wedding ceremony in Tunisia. Source: Vivaystn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    Family-arranged marriages are commonplace amongst diverse ethnic and religious Arab communities. Though marriage customs are changing in some Arabic speaking families in Australia, couples still tend to seek family approval of the person they have chosen. This is viewed as an important act of respect towards their parents, and people rarely marry in defiance of their families.

    Many Arabs feel that because marriage is such a major decision, it is still considered prudent to leave it to the family’s discretion rather than to choose someone solely on the basis of emotion or ideas of romance. However, in the arranged marriage, the prospective bride and bridegroom have the opportunity to meet, visit, and become acquainted — and to accept or reject a proposal of marriage. The degree to which the individuals are consulted will vary according to how traditional or modern the family is.

    Wedding Party, Sanaá, Yemen
    Wedding Party, Sanaá, Yemen. Source: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

    For both Muslims, Christians and other religiously diverse groups, marriage and divorce are controlled by religious law. Marriage across religious lines is rare, although Islam permits a Muslim man to marry a Jewish or Christian woman without requiring that his wife convert. A Muslim woman, however, must marry a Muslim man; in this way the children are assured of being Muslim (children are considered to have the religion of their father).

    In the Islamic tradition, the marriage contract is an extremely important step in the marriage process. It must be signed in front of witnesses, and it will outline the specific responsibilities of each party. This could include several monetary conditions, like the dowry and what happens in case of a divorce. In many cases, the signing of the contract will be followed by a large celebration.

    Amongst Arab Christians, the marriage is a sacrament consistent with the traditions of either the Orthodox or Catholic Church and does not include details of specific responsibilities, monetary conditions or requirements in case of a divorce.

  • Birth Open or Close
    Young Arabic mother and baby

    Across all cultural and religious groups of Arabic speaking backgrounds, the birth of a child is considered a blessing of God and an occasion for celebration. In most families, the birth of a boy, especially if he is the first born, is greater occasion for celebration, as families consider the birth of boys as a vehicle for passing on the family name and for greater economic prosperity.

    It is customary across all religious groups to praise a baby with the phrase “mash’allah”, meaning “by the will of God”. Repeating the name of God is also supposed to protect the newborn child from the curse of the 'Evil Eye', as is the pinning of a small talisman on the baby’s clothes.

    Traditionally, the mother of newborn is supported by her own mother, sisters and other female relatives in all tasks related to looking after the baby and herself. In fact, in all cultural and religious groups, the mother is treated with great care in recognition of her physical vulnerability and she is strongly encouraged to rest, whilst the female relatives attend to all domestic duties. The new mother is the centre of attention, she is waited on by other family members, and nourishing foods are prepared for her to bolster her health as a nursing mother.

    In most Arabic speaking families, the new mother is expected to remain at home and to do little other than rest and feed the newborn for 40 days. Amongst Christian families, at the end of the 40 day period, the mother and the baby go to Church for the baby to be blessed.

    Muslims have some simple customs and rituals to welcome a newborn child. The Muslim call to prayer is the first thing a Muslim baby hears and the words are whispered into the right ear of the child by their father: "God is great, there is no God but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Come to prayer." There are a number of events that take place on or after the seventh day:

    • The baby's head is shaved to show that the child is the servant of Allah. The hair is weighed and the equivalent weight in silver is given to charity
    • The 'Aqeeqah is also traditionally carried out on the seventh day; this is a celebration which involves the slaughter of sheep (in Australia the meat is ordered at the butchers), and the meat is distributed to relatives, neighbours and the poor
    • Muslim baby boys are often circumcised when they are seven days old, although this can take place at a later date
    • The newborn baby’s name is chosen on the seventh day (see Naming Conventions)

    There are also customs practised in specific countries across the Arab world which are continued amongst Arabic speaking communities in Australia:

    • Egyptians have a special celebration, the 'Sebou', which is held on the seventh day after the birth. All families, Coptic or Muslim, rural or urban, rich or poor take part in the Sebou Ceremony. The celebration sees family and friends attending the home of the newborn, and involves lots of cooking, bathing and dressing the baby, tossing salt on the mother and the home to ward off the Evil Eye, and carrying the baby in a decorated container through the house followed by family members who carry candles. The mother steps over the baby seven times without touching it and the grandparents ‘shake’ the baby horizontally and give him orders to obey only their family

    • When a child is born in Lebanese families, the family prepares Meghli, which is a traditional rice pudding made of pounded rice, sugar, caraway seed, anise seed, powdered ginger and water. Meghli is usually decorated with some blanched almonds, walnuts and pistachios. When visitors come to see the newborn, usually bearing gifts, the parents of the new baby are expected to serve Meghli

    In the Australian context, many migrant and refugee families do not have their extended family members here and on the occasion of child birth, the mother of the newborn returns home after hospital and may not have her mother, sisters, aunties and other females to support her in the initial weeks and months. Due to the lack of traditional supports, coupled with existing experiences of social isolation, she may be at increased risk of post-natal depression.

    Please see Engaging Arabic Speaking Women to consider key issues and strategies to work effectively with mothers of newborn children and for some helpful hints to ensure that your client is best supported. You can also use our Directory to locate Arabic speaking health practitioners and Arabic speaking early childhood services to support your client.