Role of the family

Role of the family

Family lies at the core of how society organises in many nations of the Middle East and North Africa. In other areas, the tribe is the basic unit of the community, although it could be argued that the family is the basic unit of the tribe. This core relational unit carries great responsibility for social, political, economic and religious commitments. The individual is responsible only as part of the family or tribe.

Lack of government provision for health care, unemployment, and retirement benefits means families have an obligation to provide economic security for their other members. However, it is more than economics. One of my friends often shook her head in disbelief when we spoke of the role of aged care facilities in my own nation. It was unimaginable that a family would give the care of their elderly to an institution.

However, is the family only a social and economic safety net in society? Or is its role more complete in how it holds the individual within a strong, supportive, nurturing place of belonging and identity?

A friend spoke recently about the importance of being known within the context of the family for her own well-being in the community. She spoke of how it gave her great freedom to be herself and do what she does. What I might see as limitations to self-expression and freedom were, for her, gifts of wholeness and well-being.

Suad Joseph and Susan Slymovics show how women are placed in society, with its many intersecting relationships, within their place in the family: ‘… women… must be embedded in familial relationships to make most effective use of the institutions [of politics and civil society].[1]’ They go on to argue that ‘most women … would argue for retention of these familial relationships because the ties also provide support.[2]

During my years in South Asia, I observed the way women’s responsibilities for the family over-rode their personal desires and needs. We noted in the recent blogs on prayer that women living under Islam usually do not pray for themselves but rather for family and their needs. They see their ‘interests as embedded in those of others, especially familial others.[3]

My friend mentioned earlier told how she would answer when asked how she was. She would think of how other members of her family are and if they are okay then she would say she was okay. Whereas I might react to this thought, my friend saw this as a part of belonging and living well within the constructs of social organisation. It is not just her responsibility to think of the welfare of her family, they carry particular responsibilities for her and her well-being, care, protection, and providing for her needs.

The role of the family is complex, covering social, political and economic responsibilities for each member. While we often focus on the responsibilities of the individual toward the family, we do well to remember that the family carries ongoing relationships for the well-being of each member. These are obligations to which it also is held accountable.

[1] {Joseph, 2001 #366} p. 5

[2] Op cit. p. 5

[3] Op cit. p. 7

Featured Image: Credit and thanks to IMB Photos

© When Women Speak … August 2023

CH spent nearly four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and has returned as part of Interserve’s International Leadership. A co-founder of the When Women Speak… network, her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).

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