Counseling Arab Americans
Jay C Coleman
The belief, common among non-Arab Americans, that Arabic families are oppressive and dominated by violent fathers who mistreat their wives and children, has been documented in numerous sources (e.g. Suleiman, 1988, Al-Mughni, 1993). This is probably not unexpected given the struggle to fit traditional Islam with expanding women’s rights throughout the Muslim world (Al-Mughni, 1993). Despite theological interpretations of the Qu’ran that argue for equality between the sexes (e.g. Engineer, 2004) the issue of sexual equality remains contentious. Accounts of honor killings and other acts of violent oppression against women (Goodwin, 2002) in Muslim countries fuel the image of Muslim and Arabic men as hostile and violent toward women (although other women assist in many of these incidents). Indeed, in Arabic families, men typically are considered the titular head of the household. However, women normally wield a great deal of influence over decision important to the family. Contrary to direct styles of confrontation and assertiveness favored by mainstream American culture, Arabic women often use more indirect means of communication and influence, which may make them appear more passive to Western observers (Abudabbeh & Nydell, 1993; Jackson, 1997). As is true in other cultures, the exact nature of a women’s power in the family may vary widely between families, as well as according to the cultural traditions of specific regions and nations. As an example of how cultural traditions may be misinterpreted as a sign of oppression, traditional cultural head and/or face coverings are often considered to be indicative of male oppression, although many women consider these adornments a sign of religious or cultural pride and devotion and have no wish to remove them (Erickson & Al-Timimi, 2004).
Family is centrally important to the life of many Arab Americans, and the wellbeing of the family unit is considered to be of primary importance (Abudabbeh & Nydell, 1993). Family honor is often a large motivator for each individual within the family system, and each family member is expected to exhibit behaviors which reflect well on the family. The family thus retains powerful influence over individuals, beyond what generally is common for many American families. Family commitments are expected to take precedence over personal or career commitments (Abudabbeh & Nydell), and both parents may retain a great degree of decision making control over even adult children. When Arab Americans are required to travel for extended periods away from their family, this often produces intense feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness for these individuals. Some Arab Americans who were born within the United States do reject the cultural values and expectations of their parents, sometimes leading to intergenerational strife (Abudabbeh, 1996), particularly among parents who had expected to assert authoritarian control over their children’s lives. In traditional Arab American families, marriages may still be arranged affairs (Abraham, 1995), although Muslim women have the right to refuse a prospective marriage partner. These arranged marriages are often practical, matching family background, education, and social status, with comparatively little consideration for love or previous relationship between the parties to be married (Abudabbeh, 1996). Given that commingling of the sexes is often restricted (Erickson & Al-Timimi, 2004), arranged marriages may be the easiest way to find a life partner, although as young Arab Americans mingle with the traditional American culture, their reliance on arranged marriages may dwindle, and their resistance to them may grow.
Islam is the single most prevalent religion among Arab Americans, with Christianity comprising a distant second. As most Christian Arab Americans belong to an...