by Clive Beestand
The patriarchal clan system has many ramifications.
"My husband ran away with my children."
“No, lady, I’m sorry, but he didn’t take your children. He took his children. They never were your children. They were his! You just didn’t understand the system you were getting into when you married him.”
Even now amid her pain, few can explain to this distraught wife and mother exactly what she encountered. Even Western journalists who sympathetically recount stories like hers usually don’t understand why it happened, either. From her point of view, what her husband did was reprehensible. But from his and his government’s point of view, what he did was perfectly logical, normal and correct.
The pain she feels is only one of several consequences of marrying into a patriarchal clan system, which will affect every aspect of her life. And like a native language speaker who understands and speaks fluently his mother tongue but can’t explain its grammar, her friends or enemies in this system probably won’t be able to explain it logically. They just understand it, take it for granted and operate naturally within it. But when she tests with them the theories of the anthropologists explained below, they will nod their heads and say, “Why, of course!”
I am greatly indebted to a college anthropology course in which the professor defined and described a patriarchal clan system. Unfortunately, it is almost never explained in popular articles, probably because the writers themselves do not really understand the “why” of what they are describing. The anthropologist and sociologist’s observations explain what’s behind it.
First, a definition from Webster’s New World Dictionary: “Patriarchy: A form of social organization in which the father or oldest male is recognized as the head of the family or tribe, descent and kinship being traced through the male line” (note that matriarchal clan systems, where the lineage is traced through the mother’s family, although rarer, also exist in some societies.)
In the West we think of the parents of the nuclear family as being “joint heirs” and co-parents of the children. A man and woman leave their respective families and become a new unit.
You are probably saying, “Well, of course.”
That’s precisely the point: it’s different in a patriarchal or matriarchal clan system.
In a patriarchal clan system, the wife NEVER joins the husband’s clan. Even in marriage she always remains a member of her clan. She doesn’t take her husband’s name. And if something goes wrong in the marriage, she returns to her family clan where she is still a member.
The patriarchal clan system has many ramifications:
1. Relatives—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—on the father’s side are much more important than those on the mother’s side. They even have different names (Ami versus Khali and Amati versus Khalati). In the Arabic language, the father’s cousin, Ben/Bent Ami, is much more important than Ben/Bent Khali, the mother’s cousin. Uncle Ami, the father’s brother, is much more important than Uncle Khali, the mother’s brother.
Sometimes I forget this, although I know the system. Recently I was talking with a dear friend and referred to her mother’s relatives as “your family.” She corrected me: “They are not my family. They are my mother’s family.”
2. Children born to the marriage are a net gain to the father’s clan.
3. While it is true that the clan system predates Islam, the children born to a Muslim father and a Western mother are a net gain for Islam, since they belong to his family.
4. The reverse is also true. Children born to a “Christian” (read “Western” or “heathen”) father and a Muslim mother belong to the father’s clan—not the mother’s. This is regarded as a net loss for Islam.
5. This is why in all the Islamic countries with which I am familiar, Muslim families may readily permit their men to marry foreign wives, but will vigorously oppose their women marrying foreign men. At one time I lived and taught in a capital city of a progressive modern Islamic state where numerous nationals, even government ministers, were married to foreign women. This seemed to be almost “in style,” and did not seem to be resented.
In an intermediate-level English class I tested the proposition that the reverse would not be accepted. I asked class members if it were acceptable for the country’s men to marry foreign women. They had no problem with that. But when I asked whether the country’s women could marry foreign men, the teacher was taken aback by their hostile reactions. Everyone in the class was strongly negative.
“Because it means a loss for Islam!”
The class was composed of both men and women who disagreed about many things. But in this they agreed—to a person.
This same country receives many foreign tourists. Many local young men enjoyed wooing and seducing visiting foreign females who often seemed to bask in all the unaccustomed attention. The rub was that if the visiting foreign men ever were to try the same policy with the local young women, they would be quickly picked up and dealt with by the local police. The privileges extended definitely were not reciprocal.
6. A major role of the new wife is to provide heirs, especially males, for the husband. Thus the birth of a child early in the marriage is expected. And after a certain time, if this does not happen, the wife should not be surprised if the husband begins looking for a wife who can produce the required child, preferably a male. This is true not only for kings, but for the commoners as well.
7. A woman has little value in society until she produces a son. She is often identified by her relationship to him. For example, “Um Abdul” is the mother of Abdul.
8. If she doesn’t produce children, she can be divorced in favor of a new woman who can. Recently in our town, a woman with a loving relationship with her husband went to the hospital to give birth to her first child. But something went wrong in the delivery. The baby died, and the mother had to have a hysterectomy to save her life, ending prospects for future children.
Three days later, as she was leaving the hospital sad, sick and torn, her mother-in-law met her at the hospital door. “I’m sorry. We love you. But my son has to have a son. So he is divorcing you!”
“What? But I love my husband. How can that be? Where am I going to go?” the distraught wife said. She had no living relatives in her clan.
“I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.” They also stuck her with the hospital bill. Two weeks later the would-be happy mother who failed to fulfill her expected duty committed suicide.
9. In marital struggles, her clan members should be available to intervene, or failing all, if there is a divorce, to receive her back. Beware of the implications, if you, a foreigner, help arrange a marriage. You may have ongoing responsibilities that you weren’t aware of.
10. Other important elements relate to the importance of a son’s role. Here I am less clear on the reasons. These important facts may be related more to Islam than to the patriarchal clan system.
a. All children, both boys and girls, belong to the father’s clan.
b. Boys are more important than girls, and often spoiled while girls usually learn to work and carry responsibility. While society may be changing, it remains male-dominated.
c. Men are expected to control their wives.
d. Brothers boss their sisters. Women cannot leave the country without the consent of a man in her family. Sometimes, however, this male domination can spring from the positive ideal of wanting to protect their women folk.
e. To be a divorced woman is very shameful.
f. Additionally, a divorcee has no man to protect her or give her importance. She cannot leave the country or get a family card or identification card. She is “manless,” hence has no one to be responsible for her—unless she has a son, which is curious, because even though the son belongs to her ex-husband’s clan, simply having him gives her some honor and importance and, eventually, protection. But without a son, she is a nobody.
g. Often the mother will spoil the boy to gain his love and affection in hopes that later he will come to her defense. What the mother can never obtain legally in the clan system, placing the son on her side of the solid line that separates him from her, she attempts to do on the emotional level.
h. The authorities usually are not as concerned when a woman is touched by, or responds to Christianity, or another foreign idea, as when a man does. It is expected that sooner or later her father, brother, uncle or husband will bring her into line.
i. Islamic law (sharia) carefully delineates the major inheritance to the male heirs.
j. Adoption, when it is allowed—and this has not always been the case—is much easier when adopting a girl than a boy. A boy jeopardizes the family inheritance. I observed that in a local home for abandoned children, adoptions are much more demanded for girls than for boys.
I have tested my conclusions about the Islamic patriarchal clan system in discussions with my Arab friends. Invariably, their response has been, “Why, of course!”
But what to them is so obvious, although indefinable, often is much less so to well-meaning Western women, who in the name of equality, open-mindedness, non-prejudice, independence, nonconformity or whatever, decide to marry a Muslim. Whatever the reason, they should know in advance that they are marrying into a non-reciprocal system.
If things go wrong in the marriage to Prince Charming, wives can complain all they want, but the laws are based on this system. No matter the intensity of their emotions, the strength of their arguments, or the depth of their feelings of injustice, there will be no legal comprehension of their pleas. Their protests will fall upon deaf ears. That’s just the way it is. The system is the system. They will not change it.
Note: While writing this article, I showed it to a colleague who volunteered that she had seen numerous foreign wives married to Muslims, but who had not yet converted to Islam. Instinctively, these women felt that they were not totally accepted by the husband’s family because they were not Muslims. Insecure in their position, and afraid of what would happen if something happened to their husband, several of them had, or were considering converting to Islam, so in the event of the death or divorce of the husband, they would not be cut off from their children by the husband’s family.
I believe that to choose one’s faith, because one happens to believe it is true, is a valid choice. But to choose one’s faith out of fear is not.
Clive Beestand (a pseudonym) has been living in and observing the Arab culture since 1964. He and his wife currently work in North Africa.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 432-436. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.