Lebanon's Culture


| Introduction |
| The Family |
| Sex Roles |
| Marriage |
| Child-Rearing Practices |
| Impact of War on the Family |


In 1987, Lebanese society was riddled with deep social, economic, political, and sectarian divisions. Individual Lebanese were primarily identified with their family as the principal object of their loyalty and the basis of marriage and social relationships as well as the confessional system. This, in turn, tended to clash with national integration and cohesion. Society was divided not only into diverse sectarian communities but also into socioeconomic strata that cut across confessional lines.

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The Family

The primacy of the family manifests itself in all phases of Lebanese life including political, financial, and personal relationships. In the political sphere, families compete with each other for power and prestige, and kinsmen combine forces to support family members in their quest for leadership. In business, employers give preference to hiring relatives, and brothers and cousins often consolidate their resources in operating a family enterprise. Wealthy family members are expected to share with less prosperous relatives, a responsibility that commonly falls to expatriate and urban relatives who help support their village kin.

In the personal sphere, the family has an equally pervasive role. To a great extent, family status determines an individual's access to education and chances of achieving prominence and wealth. The family also seeks to ensure an individual's conformity with accepted standards of behavior so that family honor will be maintained. An individual's ambitions are molded by the family in accordance with the long-term interests of the group as a whole. Just as the family gives protection, support, and opportunity to its members, the individual member offers loyalty and service to the family.

The traditional form of the family is the three-generation patrilineal extended family, consisting of a man, his wife or wives, their unmarried children of both sexes, and their married sons, together with the sons' wives and children. Some of these groups live under one roof as a single household, which occurred in earlier generations, but most do not.

The family commands primary loyalty in Lebanese society. In a study conducted by a team of sociologists at the American University of Beirut in 1959, loyalty to the family ranked first among both Christians and Muslims, males and females, and among both politically active and noncommitted students. Next to the family in order of importance were religion, nationality or citizenship, ethnic group, and finally the political party. The results of this study probably reflected the attitudes of the Lebanese in 1987. If anything, primordial ties appear to have increased during the 1975 Civil War. The rise of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism encouraged the development of ethnic and familial consciousness. Among Maronites, there has always been an emphasis on the family; for example, the motto of the Phalange Party is "God, the homeland, the family."

The family in Lebanon has been a means through which political leadership is distributed and perpetuated. In the Chamber of Deputies of 1960, for example, almost a quarter of the deputies "inherited" their seats. In the 1972 Chamber, Amin Jumayyil (who became president in 1982) served with his father Pierre Jumayyil after inheriting the seat of his uncle Maurice Jumayyil. Because "political families" have monopolized the representation of certain sects for over a century, it has been argued that family loyalty hinders the development of a modern polity.

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Sex Roles

The family in Lebanon, as elsewhere in the region, assigns different roles to family members on the basis of gender. The superior status of men in society and within the narrow confines of the nuclear family transcends the barriers of sect or ethnicity. Lebanese family structure is patriarchal. The centrality of the father figure stems from the role of the family as an economic unit, in which the father is the property owner and producer on whom the rest of the family depend. This notion prevails even in rural regions of Lebanon where women participate in peasant work. Although the inferior status of women is undoubtedly legitimized by various religious texts, the oppression of women in Arab society preceded the advent of Islam. The roles of women have traditionally been restricted to those of mother and homemaker. However, since the 1970s Arab societies have allowed women to play a more active role socially and in the work force, basically as a result of the manpower shortage caused by heavy migration of men to Persian Gulf countries. In Lebanon the percentage of women in the labor force has increased, although the Islamic religious revival that swept Lebanon in the 1980s, reasserted traditional cultural values. As a consequence, veils and abas (cloaks) have become more common among Muslim women. Among Christians, the war enabled women to assume more independent roles because of the absence of male family members involved in the fighting.

Notwithstanding the persistence of traditional attitudes regarding the role of women, Lebanese women enjoy equal civil rights and attend institutions of higher education in large numbers (for example, women constituted 41 percent of the student body at the American University of Beirut in 1983). Although women have their own organizations, most exist as subordinate branches of the political parties.

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In the past, marriage within the lineage, especially to first cousins or other close paternal kin, was the rule. This provided the woman the security of living among the people with whom she was raised and also tended to keep property inheritance within the family. Among Muslims, there is traditional preference for marriage to a patrilineal first cousin; in some conservative Muslim villages, the choice is considered obligatory. In Roman Catholic canon law the marriage of persons within the same bloodline or of persons within the third degree of collateral relationship is explicitly forbidden. In Lebanon a dispensation for such marriages can be obtained and they are not uncommon.

Although permitted under Muslim law, polygamy is generally regarded as both impractical and undesirable because of the additional economic burden it places upon the household and because of the personal complications it entails. Polygamous families consist of a man, up to four wives, and their children. A man rarely has more than two wives, one of whom is sometimes much younger than the other, and is married after the children of the first wife are almost fully grown. The two wives may live with their children in different rooms of the same house, or they may reside in separate abodes. A survey of families in Beirut, made in the early 1960s, indicated that there was more than one wife in only 3 percent of the Muslim families interviewed.

Other than the marriage of close relatives, such as first cousins, a factor that often enters into the choice of a marriage partner is interest in expanding family resources. A man from the leading family of a particular lineage, especially an influential and wealthy lineage, is apt to choose a wife from another such lineage within his own religious community to improve the position of his immediate family group.

The general practice in both Christian and Muslim villages is to find a partner within the village, preferably the closest eligible relative within the family. This practice has been considerably weakened in villages close to cities, where marriages outside the family and outside the village occur more often, and where first cousin marriage occurs only occasionally.

Marriage is more a matter of recognizing adult status and of joining interests than of romantic attachment. Men marry to have sons who will continue their lineage, work their land, and do honor to their house. Women marry to attain status and to bear sons for protection in their old age. Most women marry.

Age at marriage varies. In some villages girls tend to marry in their late teens; boys, in their early twenties. Urban youths marry somewhat later. Among educated families, young men frequently postpone marriage for many years, some of them waiting until their late thirties or early forties.

Christians and Druzes do not enter into a formal marriage contract; Muslims, however, do. After the announcement of the engagement of a Muslim couple, and before the wedding takes place, a formal contract is drawn up. The marriage is legal once the contract is signed. The contract notes the consent of the couple to marry and specifies the bride-price, a payment by the young man to his fiancée. In traditional Muslim society, the bride-price represented a substantial amount of money, or its equivalent in land, or a combination of both. In the 1980s, however, except in remote villages, only a token gift was made. The bride is expected to provide a dowry, usually in the form of furnishings for a new household.

Premarital and extramarital sexual relations are frowned upon throughout society. In the village there are strong sanctions against sexual relations outside marriage and such relationships are rare because every potential female partner is enmeshed in the network of kinship ties which reinforce these sanctions. Improper conduct toward an unmarried girl damages the honor of her lineage. Her father and brothers will seek redress, which can take the form of killing the girl and the man involved, killing the man or driving him from the village, or a settlement between the two lineages. If redress is not obtained, open strife between the two lineages may occur.

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Child-Rearing Practices

The major reason for marrying is procreation. A wife without children, or even one without male children, is an object of sympathy. Also, among those Christians not under the Holy See and among Muslims, she is threatened with divorce. The importance placed on having sons is reflected in the festivities attendant upon birth. At the birth of a child, the father will give a feast; if the child is a boy, the feast will be more lavish and the guests more numerous. It is always made clear within the family that male children are preferred and are given special privileges.

When the first boy is born to a married couple, friends no longer address them by their given names alone but call them by the name of their son; for instance, "father of x" and "mother of x." They continue to be addressed by the name of their first-born son, even in the event of his death. With respect to naming children, traditionally one male in every generation is given the name of his grandfather to pay respect to the older man and to honor his memory after his death.

Child-rearing practices in Lebanon are characterized by the severe discipline imposed by the father and overprotection by the mother, who strives to compensate for the rigidity of the father. In Arab society parental control does not stop at age eighteen (when a child is considered independent in most Western societies), but continues as long as the child lives in the father's residence or until the child marries. Furthermore, the practice of the father and mother making major decisions on behalf of their offspring pertains to marriage, especially the son's marriage; the daughter comes under the control of her in-laws. Arranged marriages are still practiced widely across the socioeconomic and sectarian spectrum.

Children are not trained to be independent, and expect their father to care for them as long as they are loyal and obedient. Punishment can be in the form of intimidation (takhjil, literally to incite fear and shame) or physical punishment. A study of the impact of the war noted a decline in parental authority due to extensive involvement of young men in armed militias.

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Impact of War on the Family

The protracted Civil War has made the task of conducting empirical research on marriage habits almost impossible. Available statistics indicate that familial and marital habits differ among sects. Christian families tend to be smaller than Muslim- -particularly Shia--families. According to a 1970 survey, the average Lebanese Christian family excluding Maronites had 3.57 children, the Sunni 4.38, and the Shia 5.01. A striking aspect of marriage habits in Lebanon, especially after 1975, was the impact of recession on marriage. The high cost of living and housing and the difficulty in finding employment caused men to marry later. In the past, Lebanese men and women married at an early age, but in the 1980s in Beirut the average age for marriage was 31 years for men and 22.5 for women. Economic difficulties also forced more families to resort to birth control, so that the size of the average Lebanese family has declined appreciably.

A study conducted in 1983 indicated, however, that marriage was common among the population of Greater Beirut, with only 10 percent or fewer of the population remaining single at ages above forty. The majority of females at age twenty-five or older were married; a majority of males at age thirty or older were also married. Moreover, very few adult males or females were separated or divorced. The percentage of widows forty years of age and less was considerably higher than that for males of the same age. Marriages based on personal choices of the spouses as opposed to familyarranged marriages increased with the gradual elimination of traditional boundaries between the sexes. However, family-arranged marriages continued to be practiced across geographical and social boundaries. They were preferred among the economic elite of the cities as a means of preserving wealth and status within the same extended family, or within the same social group.

One study conducted in the early 1980s on the impact of the war on family structure concluded that there was a clear decline in divorce. This probably occurred because of the huge costs involved: payment of deferred dowry, alimony for children, and support of the woman during the prescribed period during which she may not remarry.

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Source: Federal Research Division - Library of Congress (Edited by Thomas Collelo, December 1987)

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© 1997-2001 by Ayman Ghazi
Last changes: September 30, 1997