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Family, Marriage & Gender Roles

Listen to Audio: 

jordanfamily_fadi.mp3

Fadi speaks about Jordanian traditions in family and marriage.

jordanfamily_rena.mp3

Rena talks about marriage in Jordan.

jordanfamily_last.mp3

A Jordanian Christian discusses marriage and family.

In modern Jordan, the family, not the individual, is the basic social unit.  State, religion and Arab culture rely upon the family to maintain order over the individual in a wide variety of ways. 1

Jordanian Catholics interviewed for this research consistently referred to family as the central institution to their way of life.2 In some ways, particularly in terms of family size and women's freedom, they differentiated themselves from Muslims. In many ways, though, they stressed how Muslim culture had shaped Christians' cultural and moral expectations about family life.

Three aspects of family life came to the fore in interviews: the frequency and size of family gatherings, the role of a patriarch and elders in making decisions for others in the extended family, and the significance of one's family origin in public interactions.

Extended families interact often. One interviewee told how 75 of his extended family members gathered weekly with his grandparents. Family heads often insure that their adult children live nearby in the same apartment block or neighborhood, which makes it easier to gather. Those extended family members all could be called upon to support a marriage and help start a home.

The patriarch, family or clan are said to determine some of the most important aspects of interviewees’ lives, including career choice, marriage and the resolution of business or social conflicts. Interviewees pointed to a number of examples where church or civil authorities defer to decisions of a clan. A priest would not marry a couple without the family's blessing. If a person felt cheated, harmed or dishonored by a member of the clan, he could appeal to the patriarch of that person’s clan, whose verdict would be binding on the offending family member. In case of such resolution, police and courts would often stay out of the matter. 

At the start of a social or business interaction, Jordanians often take time to establish what clan, family or village a person comes from before moving forward. The expectation is that knowing what family a person comes from will help someone to measure up the person he or she is dealing with. Marriage planning, too, includes an assessment, not only of the individuals involved, but also of their whole families.

Unmarried sons and daughters of any age must live in the household of their father. In practice, this could mean that the father owns a whole block or small building, in which the child has an apartment, but in reality the unmarried children will be kept under close supervision. The patriarch of the family can be held responsible for the misdeeds of a family member under his watch.

Marriage is very much an arrangement between families. Some marriages are still arranged, but educated middle class parents often give young people the opportunity to meet through work, church and extended social circles. Marriage of Christians to Muslims is highly stigmatized, and the stigma falls on the whole family, not only the couple who marry. 

In both arranged and non-arranged marriages, terms are negotiated by elders of the family, or even by some powerful patron with ties to the family.3 Financial terms are an important and explicit part of the family negotiations, to assure economic parity and the well being of the couple. Whether it is an arranged marriage or one where the couple chooses each other, a ritual visit by the elders of the family negotiate the match is a crucial first step. Coffee is the medium for signaling a match. When the visiting family's elders drink the coffee that has been offered to them, the match is set.

An engagement party is the next important ritual, paid for by the bride’s family. If the marriage is an arranged one, the days after the engagement party may be when the couple begin to get to know one another.

Christian weddings are large and often lavish events in Amman, apparently more expensive than Muslim ones, not least because they also include alcohol and often a full meal. The groom or his family pays all the cost, including the cost of wedding clothes and jewelry for the bride and her mother and sisters. He will also be expected to buy an apartment, or at least rent one. That will all be negotiated in advance, along with the furniture. Family members help chip in for this if they can, both for the purchase of the apartment or the furnishings and appliances. Inability to provide this could prevent a marriage. Some young people try to pare down the reception costs, but families often oppose it, since it signals the family's status. Several men and women noted that those who cannot afford it often used to go to Syria or to northern Iraq to find a Christian bride, not only because Jordanians often find Syrian women more attractive, but also because weddings there could be much less expensive, and women and their families expect far less from the groom in order to make a match.

The legal system in Jordan differs from that of many other countries when it comes to the family.  Jordan does not handle these in civil courts. "Matters of personal affairs such as marriage, divorce, adoption, alimentation, inheritance, etc. are concerns of the religious courts for both Muslims and Christians."4   No matter how personally religious a person might be, one has to turn to one of these courts.  Divorce, then, is not possible for Catholics, though there can be arrangements fro separation and annulment.  

Family shapes much of the rest of Christian Jordanians' social life, and interviewees say that they spend most of their non-work time with their own family. Interviewees said that the extended family would not usually control which Christian church—Melkite, Latin, Catholic, Orthodox—members attended, though at one church an interviewee said that almost everyone in the congregation was somehow related, at least through marriage.

Gender Roles

It is worth noting that interviewees never used the word patriarchy to describe their families, or patriarch to refer to their head, yet they were clearly conscious of its structures and rules and knew that these differed from other parts of the Christian world and the West. Where concern was expressed about patriarchy, it was always in reference to some limit that family rules imposed. In politics, Jordanian Catholics all volunteered their loyalty to the premier Jordanian patriarch, the king, who had brought the stability they valued, especially compared to the frightening alternatives they witnessed in neighboring countries. They did refer to the patriarchs, so named, who head their churches, but there did not seem to be much concern about patriarchy in terms of church governance and authority. The structures of the church, like the patriarchy of family and state, were taken for granted. It was most important to people that good persons occupied those roles, rather than that the roles be changed. 

Given that headscarves, though not the full hijab, are frequently worn by Muslim women in Jordan, Catholic women in Jordan assessed their status with reference to their freedom to dress as they wish, though the norms for dress in Jordan are fairly modest, especially in contrast to nearby Lebanon. While there are no exact data on birth rate by religion, anecdotal evidence and overall demographic numbers suggest that Christians have long had much smaller families than Muslims in Jordan.  Catholic women saw this as an advantage, but worried that those demographics meant that Christians would be an even smaller minority in the future.

Julia Droeber, who studied Muslim and Christian communities and saw more similarities than differences between them culturally, noted that in Jordan “the role of women in their respective religious and social communities differs slightly between Muslims and Christians: gender segregation appears to be more pronounced in the Muslim community than among Christians, including at home and in social gatherings, weddings, and services of worship.  Dogmatic precepts aside, this may be a reason why Christian women appear to be a little more involved than Muslim women in the public aspects of their religious community.”5 It is worth noting that the churches used both altar boys and girls, and the young women were actively involved in mixed-gender organizations, including as leaders.

Women, especially married women, still tend not to work outside the home, but all of the women interviewed for this project did work outside the home.

Muslim? Arab? Christian traits?

What do these familial traits have to do with Catholicism? Catholic interviewees often interpreted the customs of engagement, marriage and family life as constraints of living in a country where Islam is dominant, rather than as elements of their own history. Many of the family and patriarchal traits described above are at least as easily attributable to Bedouin and local custom as to Islam.

Some interviewees clearly raised them because they understood the marriage practices in particular to be outcomes of Muslim culture that Christians had to adjust to, pointing to a tension between Catholicism and culture. But these family norms clearly also shape understandings of what it means to be a good or bad person, suggesting ways that Catholicism is in synch with its host culture in Jordan. 

Urban Catholics described this patriarchal family culture to some degree as a vestige of village life, but also identified ways in which they endure in urban society.   Several described it as a kind of “tribe mentality,” but others were deeply uncomfortable at the thought of seeing that written about them, even if it were true, because it would promote that mentality, rather than promote national unity, a shift necessary for their future. 6

Read More:

Julia Droeber, “‘We Are Different!’:  Similarities Between Christian and Muslim Women in Jordan,” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 23 (1), 59-78.

Mohanna Haddad, "Christian Identity in the Jordanian Arab Culture: a case study of two communities in north Jordan," Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 20 (2000) 137-146.

  • 1. Mohanna Haddad, "Christian Identity in the Jordanian Arab Culture: a case study of two communities in north Jordan," Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 20 (2000) 145.
  • 2. This entry is based on extended interviews in Jordan with six Melkite and Latin rite Catholics, and shorter discussions with a dozen other Melkite, Latin and Maronite Catholics, all conducted in May 2014 in Amman.
  • 3. It was surprisingly difficult to ascertain to what extent this was typically a man's role or a role shared by men and women. Julia Droeber, in her study of Palestinians, who share much in common with their counterparts on the East Bank of the Jordan, describes mothers as "a crucial force in the process of finding suitable partners" for sons and daughters. Julia Droeber, The Dynamics of Coexistence in the Middle East: Negotiating Boundaries Between Christians, Muslims, Jews and Samaritans in Palestine (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 128.
  • 4. Haddad, "Christian Identity in the Jordanian Arab Culture," 144.
  • 5. Julia Droeber, “‘We Are Different!’:  Similarities Between Christian and Muslim Women in Jordan,” in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 23 (1),  73.
  • 6. Droeber, “‘We Are Different!’" 62. Droeber examined ways that Christians used phrases like "tribal" and "traditional" in reference only to Muslims, but my own interviewees used them as much to refer to Christian villages past. Her female interviewees, a larger pool than mine, “shared a sense of unease if not anger about the perceived inequality and injustice that is embedded in their perspective religions." At the same time, she noted, "Very few of the women I met were openly critical about their respective religions.” (p. 65).  Droeber also noted that “Christian women did attend churches more than Muslim women I worked with attended mosques.” (66).