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June 03, 2003

Family Life in Islam, Extended vs. Nuclear Families, Patrilineal vs. Matrilineal Societies, Etc.

The author of the blog Disaffected muslim here makes what I take to be important cultural analysis of differences in cultures that impact upon civil values. A worthwhile and short read
After spending some time reading Fatima Mernissi's Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, it occurred to me just how much Islamic law, as well as Arab and other Muslim cultures, depend on the extended family, as opposed to the nuclear family. Islamic law depends so much on this that Shari'ah often just isn't practicable in societies not based extended families. I've never really seen this topic discussed anywhere, so I'll try to take a stab at it.

The primary unit in the US and much of the West is the nuclear family, which is generally Mom/Dad and children (yes, there are variations, but let's keep this simple!). Islamic societies are generally based on the extended family, which stretches over three or more generations, and usually has a male head (patriarch) that everybody defers to, even other men with their own families. These families function as a safety net in societies where social programs are inadequate or nonexistent. Instead of the aged getting Social Security, for example, the younger members of the family are supposed to support and care for the respected elders. The various members usually work together and often help each other out, whether with money, time, or effort. They have also often been the source of prospective spouses for children (the frequent practice of marriage to cousins or more distant relatives), which keeps the wealth in the family, even in case of divorce.

But it isn't all positive: the negative is that this kind of societal organization in which the extended family or tribe is paramount is generally not very conductive to individual freedom. One stays where one's family is all one's life, usually, and one has to know one's place in the family. The family can be very "persuasive" by threatening to "disown" someone, since that takes away both family connectios and the safety net, in effect leaving the person naked to the cruel blows of fate, especially women, who are usually very much dependent on their families.

It also means that arranged marriages are the order of the day, since the main purpose of such unions is making alliances between families, or within the same family (the lack of freedom again). Love, which so often disregards societal barriers ("love conquers all") is discouraged, since it would destroy the carefully-planned marriage alliances and strict societal rules. And since the family or tribe is paramount, holding together nuclear families does not seem to be quite as high a priority, since individual marriages are not the bedrock of society. Contrary to Muslim propaganda, which points disapprovingly at high Western divorce rates while insinuating that divorce is very uncommon in Muslim lands (not stating actual statistics, mind you!), divorce is not at all uncommon in Muslim lands, especially when the husband can divorce his wife at will, without giving any reason, just by saying "I divorce you" three times. Contrast this with the lengthy legal proceedings in an American divorce. In addition, consider that if the rates are lower, one big reason is that while most divorces in the US are initiated by women, in Islam the ability of the woman to divorce is considerably more difficult than that of the man; she has to have an acceptable reason to do so and she must give back the dowry her husband gave her, which makes the claim by Muslim writers that the dowry is purely the property of the woman to do with as she wills something of a cruel joke; she will in fact have to hold on to it in case she wants a divorce.

Muslim family law implicitly requires an extended family. The many rules about women presuppose that she has a family that will support her. In the case of divorce, women are supposed to be given a small amount of maintenance (usually for a year, sometimes only three months) from the husband, as well as some child support until the child comes of age (or is taken by the father), but there is nothing like the American concept of alimony. In addition, as mentioned, if the woman initiated the divorce, she is generally obliged to give back the dowry that her husband gave her, so she may be left with nothing. She is supposed to go back to her extended family, who will take care of her and perhaps her children. Since Muslim women are often unemployed and/or poorly educated, if she doesn't have a family she is basically being thrown out onto the street! And since in the West the extended family often doesn't exist, or is unable or unwilling to help, this law would in practice be unbelievably cruel without the cushioning provided by the extended family. [more]