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Family, a Critical Building Block of Arab Society--Including Arab America

posted on: Aug 17, 2022

Family, a Critical Building Block of Arab Society--Including Arab America
Arab American families carry a significant religious and cultural tradition with them even several generations following the original immigration — Photo

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

Arab children’s educational success makes their parents extremely proud. Also, their marriage and having grandkids are absolutely critical to most families. For Arabs worldwide, these accomplishments are vitally important. So as a young adult marrying someone of similar background is often significant. A young couple’s conception of children soon after marriage is always a joy for grandparents. Here we see how all these accomplishments reflect and reinforce Arab family values of honor, dignity, generosity, loyalty, and esteem.

Family as the Core of Arab Society vs. the Individual

In Arab culture, the family, rather than the individual, is the core of society. It is the basic unit that teaches values and traditions. It is the family that embodies commitment and unity, honor, loyalty, and obligations. These are the central values of Arab Christians, Muslims, and Druses. The tribe defined Arab society. It provided the ties of kinship and marriage, which were key to building and sharing resources. Tribes became the source of honor, history, land, and wealth. One’s identity was tribal, much as today it derives from one’s family. At its extreme, such family-centeredness can result in favoritism and nepotism.

Family, a Critical Building Block of Arab Society--Including Arab America
Muslim and Christian Arab families have found equal religious opportunities to practice their faiths in the U.S. — Photo The Independent

After Faith, Family is the Next Most Important Feature of Arab Society

In traditional society, family comes in second after faith in shaping Arab lives. It is preeminent in shaping the lives of children and grandchildren. Family is where loyalty and obligations are shaped. Family loyalty and obligations take precedence over friends or a job and over one’s personal needs. Arab families tend to be tightknit and they shape personal status, individual character, achievement, and personal dignity. Arab families in traditional society are patriarchal, while in western society, the father and mother tend to share roles more equally. Likewise, in such a society, the extended family is more important in providing physical and emotional support, especially in times of stress and need.

Underlying the Family are critical Arab values

One of the main characteristics Arabs are known for is generosity. Arabs show generosity in their tendency to share with others what they have. It also shows up in a friendly courteousness. Some of the most important values for Arabs are honor and loyalty. Arabs can be defined as, humanitarian, loyal and polite. A typical example of Arab generosity is in dinner situations. The host will insist that guests eat the last piece of the meal on the server plate. Or, in a restaurant setting, they may show their generosity by arguing strenuously over who will pay the bill.

Pride of parents in their children is paramount. Supporting them financially in their education is critical–leading to a good job that will make the parents proud. Inheritance is also an important element in ensuring the financial wellbeing of the family.

Honor, one of the most important Values of the Arab family

Social exchanges between men and women in traditional society rarely happened outside the workplace. Men and women were very careful about being alone together. They would take care in social situations to limit interactions that might be seen negatively. One objective would be to avoid any possibility of gossip, which might harm a woman’s reputation. Some Arab countries have very strict, conservative practices to ‘protect the reputation of women.’ Practices differ between Arab countries and families. Many Arab Americans are on the more liberal side of the continuum, though they are still mindful of their family’s honor.

Family is the place where social loyalty begins its expression

Family, a Critical Building Block of Arab Society--Including Arab America
In the American context, Honor is expressed beyond family through political alliances — Photo The Political Beast

Social loyalty is an important piece of Arab culture. Arab families of course teach their children self-reliance, individuality, and responsibility. But they also train them in the supreme value of the family and family loyalty. For Arab American families, there is the broader American cultural force of individualism, individual rights, and families living outside the extended family. Traditional Arab society is more focused on the group, namely the broader family. This cultural force stems from the early culture of the tribe in Arab history. Loyalty towards the family is preferred over the individual, her or his friends, colleagues or job. Loyalty especially to one’s father and mother is paramount.

Women and Men in Traditional Society segregated in Public—Contemporary Arabs are more inclusive

Traditional Arab society was segregated by gender in public. The idea was alleged to protect women’s honor. Women’s honor has been a salient feature of Arab culture. But it was more emphatic in Islamic society. Despite that tradition, Arab women, regardless of the tradition of segregation, have their own networks that allow them to counter men’s roles. The younger generation tends to be less observant of this practice. Just as in any society, Arab generations are shaped by different socioeconomic and political changes of their time.

Family, a Critical Building Block of Arab Society--Including Arab America
Arab Americans can express themselves in numerous ways–perhaps upsetting more traditional cultural values — Photo Naturally Curly

How Arab Families differ by Generation

Differences within families along generational lines help us understand the changing landscape of the family. The following depictions are applicable to the more traditional array of Arab countries. However, they also apply roughly to Arab American families along similar generational lines:

–Older generation, they are more prone to accept most traditional practices of the family and are perhaps stricter in their adherence to religious and cultural practices;
–Middle generation, especially those who immigrated to the U.S., have one foot in a more traditional society, the other in a modernizing culture; and
–Younger generation, sometimes called the ‘Arab Digital Generation,’ were born into a world based on globalization and digital technology—they share many basic Arab values with their parents and grandparents.

Together, the three generations share in varying degrees the values of dignity, generosity, and hospitality. Such values are stronger in the older generation, but still observable among younger Arabs.

Family, a Critical Building Block of Arab Society--Including Arab America
Younger Arab Americans are much more likely to join in protests than the older generation — it’s only natural — Photo

In Arab culture, Respect and Esteem increase with Age

Especially in the U.S., the idea of an Arab American grandmother or grandfather being sent to a senior citizen facility to live out their lives is not fondly welcomed. This ties to the values placed on family and kin. The values we’ve seen of family commitment and unity, honor and loyalty, and obligation are key Arab values. To a certain extent, Arab Americans adhere to the same values.

Putting an elderly relative “out to pasture” is anathema to most Americans.
It is abhorrent to Arab Americans. Problems associated, for example, with the financial support of an elderly relative are especially sensitive. Not treating such a relative with honor is unacceptable. It can only bring shame to the immediate family. Both Christianity and Islam have clear guidance on such issues. In Arab culture, age is a highly respected quality. Both respect and esteem increase with age. It is all about an elder’s lifelong experiences, wisdom, decision-making authority, and position in the family—all are important in showing respect for an elder.

Conclusion Arab cultural values share many common traits with cultures around the world. It is the weaving of Arab values in a certain pattern that gives them their unique character. These values are shared over the Arab World. In Arab America they merge with American cultural values, weaving yet a new pattern. Nevertheless, we can still see that they are Arab in character and reflect the long, rich history of the culture they come from.

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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