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Intimate Selving in Arab Families: Gender, Self, and Identity

Intimate Selving in Arab Families: Gender, Self, and Identity
December 22, 2018 WWS

Title: Intimate Selving in Arab Families: Gender, Self, and Identity

Author: Suad Joseph (editor)

Publisher: Syracuse University Press (1999)

Reviewer: C. Hine

While this is an older publication, Intimate Selving in Arab Families continues to make an excellent contribution to our understanding of social structures and the impacts of these on women. Suad Joseph, a Lebanese anthropologist, has edited this collection of essays on the study of relationships in the Arab World, including a number by herself. The construction of self in the context of relationships is a challenge for Westerners to grasp, and that is what makes this volume important, even 20 years after its first publication.

Joseph’s own essays in the collection foreground her work on ‘relationality’ and ‘relational connectivity’, insightful concepts that elucidate complex social dynamics. She challenges the valorisation of autonomy by the West, drawing attention to ‘enmeshment’ where she says ‘the enmeshed self privileges relationships and context rather than inner psyches and identifies persons as active agents rather than passive victims.’ (4) She speaks of this as a form of ‘functional relationality’.

She goes on to describe relational selving in societies as the way ways in which self is constructed where family, with its linages, bonds and sociability are valued more than the person. Attention is given to the patriarchal structures on which much of this socialisation is predicated. Other chapters give further attention to this, including a chapter on the Naguib Mahfouz trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street) exploring the ways that even patriarchy is continually being (re)constructed in response to challenge and change in families, society and nations.

Jean Said Makdisi, in a chapter entitled Teta, Mother and I, draws to attention the world of women and power, suggesting that ‘the giving nurturing functions of women in the house [is] a form of power’ (44). Provocatively, perhaps, she suggests that it is in sacrifice that women win the battles that they have with men for rights and equality, that this is how women know and are able to handle men.

Other chapters, as the writers explore their own family contexts, give insights in the dynamics of family relationships. The window that is opened in these writings helps the outsider glimpse some of the ways that women experience the family space. Maysoon Melek speaks of love, security, protection and presents (sometimes) being the gift of the older generations to her and her siblings within that space. Elsewhere it is expressed as growing up in the womb of the extended family.

This picks up another of Joseph’s key points, one that is imperative for those of us working in these regions to really grasp, and particularly when we think of those making choices to join new families of allegiance. Jospeh says: ‘… One never is just a single person. One always is already a set of relationships, multiple intersections of connectivity. It is the relationships that position a person for access, rights, privileges, resources. It is the relationships that shape selfhood and identity.’ (73) Relationships bring rights that people have in each other, claims that those in the relationships can make on each other. She further says: ‘… my belonging, my home, my entitlements flow from neither birthright nor citizenship, but from relationships, my relationships with my family, my friends, and their relationships with others.’ (67)

Reading Suad Joseph’s book gives profound insights into the communities that we may live in if we go to the Middle East, but insight into the communities that are now among us. This collection of essays challenges foundational concepts around identity and belonging for those of us not from collectivist cultures. They point to the relational challenges many experience when they engage with in relationships with friends from the Middle East, and other proximate cultures. 

Joseph’s work raises fundamental questions about what the good news of allegiance to Jesus looks like for those whose self is constructed in relationship. It (re)shapes our reading of the Bible as it explores dynamics many of us are blind to. It gives pointers to issues that are essential for discipleship as we help those who have given their allegiance to Jesus to construct their new self as part of his family. There are insights into the ways that women navigate life that those of us from outside must pay attention to.

Intimate Selving in Arab Families still provides essential reading today and is highly recommended.

(c) When Women Speak … November 2018

CH spent nearly three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. 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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