Engaging Arabic Speaking Women

Arabic women

Women of diverse Arabic Speaking backgrounds have come from cultural backgrounds in which gender roles and expectations differ from those that are widely accepted in Australia. Exposure to Australian social values which are supportive of the rights of women can lead to many women and girls challenging traditional gender roles. Equally, such exposure may lead to many women seeking to maintain traditional gender roles and guiding their daughters in the maintenance of traditional gender roles, rather than adopting modern Western values of women’s roles.

Gender identity varies widely amongst women of diverse Arabic speaking backgrounds and this is something for you to explore with your client(s). We provide you with some issues to consider and some helpful hints to support your effective engagement with women of Arabic speaking backgrounds.

Issues to Consider

There are many factors which contribute to the identity of women of Arabic speaking backgrounds living in Australia and these factors may vary for women of different age groups and with diverse histories of migration and settlement.

  • Young women Open or Close
    Young Arabic women

    The issues affecting young women and girls are primarily in the context of their bicultural identity and intergenerational tensions they may experience as they navigate across two cultures. Some issues identified by young women and girls of Arabic speaking backgrounds include:

    • Pursuit of education: The pursuit of education attainment and further/tertiary education has traditionally been subscribed to males in the Arabic speaking family, however, there are shifts in the perception of the value of education for young women in some Arabic speaking families in Australia.  You can discuss this with young women to determine their particular family circumstances and expectations around education attainment.

    • Carer duties: A highly valued duty of young women in the Arabic speaking family is in their role as carers for parents, elders and other dependent family members.  Stemming from the collectivist nature of Arab cultures is the obligation of younger family members, in particular young women, to undertake carer responsibilities in the family.  This is something that you will need to discuss with young women to whom you may be providing services and determine if this is part of their family life.

    • Sexuality and sex education: Parents of young women have expressed concerns for the sexually permissive nature of Australian society and have described sexual exploration of young women with reservation.  Young women and girls of Arabic speaking families are exposed to sex education at school and to mainstream Australian cultural expectations of their sexual exploration, which is in stark contrast to traditional cultural expectations that require sexual exploration be restricted within marital relationships.

    • Financial independence: With young women having access to welfare payments in Australia and with opportunities for employment, they may have greater opportunities for a degree of financial independence and are therefore less reliant on family for financial support.  However, this may cause tensions in family dynamics, which are frequently framed by interdependence that could require shared finances.  This is an area you will need to explore with your client and determine if this is an area of conflict or concern in her home.

    • Role models for younger siblings: Where a daughter is the eldest in the Arabic speaking family, she is expected to behave in ways that present her as a role model for her younger siblings, in particular for her younger sisters.  In this way she has a duty to be exemplary in her behaviour and to demonstrate to her younger siblings, especially her sisters, how to behave appropriately and with respect to her parents and elders in the family and the broader community. Her capacity as a role model can be instrumental in parental guidance and rearing of younger children, but presents the eldest daughter with additional pressure to meet parental expectations.

    • Expectations of marriage: Traditionally, females in Arabic speaking families are expected to marry at a younger age than in mainstream Australian culture and often marriages are arranged by older family members.  It is important to be aware that there is a distinct difference between arranged marriages and early/forced marriages – arranged marriages offer young women and men the opportunity to meet the prospective partner and to consent to the marriage. Family expectations for young women to marry is something that your client may be facing at home and may in fact be content with, but it is one of the areas that you need to explore with your client.

    • Identity as an individual: This is a broad area that encompasses many questions around identity for young people of Arabic speaking backgrounds and, in particular, for young women as their gender identity in traditional terms varies greatly to that for young women of the broader mainstream Australian culture.  Young women of Arabic speaking backgrounds have, by and large, been raised to define their identity as part of the family or the group, with prescribed duties and obligations that are part and parcel of their identity as young women. This sense of identity may shift and take on attributes of the Western individualist identity but this will vary from one young woman to another, depending on her family relationships, education, social interactions and her individual personality attributes.
  • Older women Open or Close
    Arabic woman of wisdom

    There are two groups of older women of Arabic speaking backgrounds: those who migrated at a younger age and have grown older in Australia and those who arrived more recently as elderly migrants (under family visas) or as elderly refugees. Both groups of women may face similar issues and challenges, including:

    • Loss of status: This can be experienced through cultural change in the family, which may not uphold the reverence traditionally bestowed on the elderly mother/grandmother - her skills and opinions may not be valued in the family as they were in the home country, which could lead to depression, anxiety or conflict in the family.

    • Grief and loss: This may be experienced at a time when her traditional female responsibilities and duties for child rearing have been fulfilled.  Many older migrant/refugee women experience ‘postponed’ grief for the loss of their homeland, the loss of family members in their home country and in some cases, post-traumatic symptoms may develop years after the trauma occurred.

    • Social isolation: This can be compounded for older women of Arabic speaking backgrounds, many of whom have spent their younger years fulfilling traditional family and child rearing responsibilities.  Consequently, they may have had limited education, employment and English language learning opportunities.
  • Mothers Open or Close
    Arabic mother and her children

    The issues faced by women of Arabic speaking backgrounds who are mothers greatly depends on their length of settlement in Australia, their English language proficiency, the degree to which they subscribe to traditional family roles, values and beliefs, and the kind of family and community supports which they access.

    Raising children in Australia requires mothers of Arabic speaking backgrounds to have the skills to work with their children who are navigating their identity as they grow between two cultures. Given the traditional cultural expectation that women are primarily responsible for the home and for raising children, it is more likely that the mother in the Arabic family will spend more time with children and she may be challenged in her role by a number of factors, which you will need to explore with her, in order to assess her needs and to determine the types of supports you could provide. These factors include:

    • Knowledge and familiarity with Australian systems, health care services, the education system and youth services: You need to determine your client’s level of knowledge, which will reflect her confidence in understanding the issues and opportunities facing her children, as well as her capacity to engage with programs and activities relevant to her children’s development.

    • English language proficiency: This may affect a woman’s level of participation in her own education, employment and other social activities.  Importantly, her English language proficiency will affect her level of engagement with her children’s schools, her capacity to support her children with homework and her capacity to supervise their use of technology.

    • Recognition of pre-arrival experiences: Women who have arrived as refugees may be experiencing the effects of trauma and fleeing from persecution in war torn countries of origin and may need additional counselling supports to work through emotions of post-traumatic stress.  Some women arrive in Australia through the “Women at Risk” category – these women have lost or been separated from their fathers or husbands and are at risk of sexual or physical violence in the country where they first sought asylum.  These women may require intensive support.

    • Parenting in a new culture: The dynamics of family relationships are affected by changing perceptions of parenting roles, of the roles/responsibilities of children and of traditional cultural expectations of mothers, which differ to those placed on mothers of mainstream Australian families.  It is important for you to ascertain your client’s understandings of her role as a mother in the new culture and her knowledge of child rearing practices in Australia.

    • Family and community supports: Where, traditionally, the source of support for mothers in Arab cultures has been other women in the family (their own mother, sisters, aunties, cousins) and other community members (eg members of faith communities), they may now find themselves living in a home without any other family members to support them with both practical and emotional needs. You will need to identify what support networks, if any, your client accesses for assistance on a range of issues.

    • Risk of family violence: Although there is no statistical evidence to indicate that women of Arabic speaking backgrounds experience higher rates of family violence, there is anecdotal evidence that highlights the barriers to accessing support for family violence amongst women of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities, in particular, refugee women.
    New/young mothers
    Young Arabic mother and baby

    Mothers of infants and toddlers of diverse Arabic speaking backgrounds face particular challenges related to their migration experiences and cultural understandings of motherhood. Some of the issues faced by mothers of older children and all parents of Arabic speaking backgrounds are common to those faced by mothers of infants and toddlers, but their particular circumstances give rise to the following issues for your consideration as you engage with them in service provision:

    • Lack of social supports: Some young mothers have experienced separation from family members and their settlement in Australia may be one of isolation from family supports.  At the time of having a newborn, this may cause emotional distress, anxiety and depression for many young mothers.

    • Poor English language proficiency: This may cause further anxiety in understanding health care professionals during the perinatal and postnatal periods; importantly, access to professional interpreter services for maternal and child health care services is critical to supporting young mother’s care of infants and young children.

    • Mental health supports: Post natal depression may need to be clearly explained in ways that prevent shame and stigma for new mothers who face cultural expectations of womanhood and motherhood.  Additionally, support for post natal depression needs to be defined in ways that do not compromise any existing family supports and do not diminish the value of family member’s assistance.

    • Acknowledgement of cultural and religious practices: Depending on the religious affiliation of your client, there may be certain practices which your client follows.  It is important to acknowledge the values of her cultural/religious practices (eg for some young mothers of Arabic speaking backgrounds, she may be required to remain strictly indoors with her baby in the first 40 days from birth).

Guide for Service Providers

Guide cover

As a service provider, you will provide effective and useful services with increased background knowledge of the clients’ language, history, religion, ethnicity, migration and settlement history, and their involvement in their community groups and networks.

By strengthening your cultural knowledge of the diverse groups of people of Arabic speaking backgrounds you will have a stronger understanding of the cultural factors which may be important in your clients' lives and in the way you and your clients will work together.

Arabic Welfare has created a guide that includes an outline of issues to consider, and useful hints and strategies as part of a best practice checklist, to ensure effective engagement with women and appropriate service provision to support their needs.

Please contact us to obtain a copy of this guide.