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Monica Bassili

Women and Honour | Monica Bassilli

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Women and Honour

In many collective patrilineal societies, the norms surrounding women’s appearances, behaviours, and life choices are entirely associated with the family’s morals and honour. Surveys from Egypt, Palestine, Israel, and Tunisia show that the concept of family honour is centred on women’s responsibility to behave to protect the honour of the family. Why is this important?

Based on the 2016 Canadian Census, 947 820 persons in Canada reported having an Arab ethnic origin. However, despite smaller numbers than people from South and Southeast Asia, Canadians have a skewed vision of the Arab diaspora. Further, a CBC study on Canadian immigration perceptions showed that most respondents – 64 percent  – said most immigrants coming to Canada are from North Africa and the Middle East. 

Ultimately, only 12 percent of immigrants come from those regions. Misconceptions concerning the Canadian immigration system are widespread due to social media, news media, and the overrepresentation of the Muslim-Arab lineage. Yet, despite these misunderstandings, Arab Canadians and migrants are intensely familiar with acculturation.

Acculturation is adjusting to a new culture and involves changes to cultural orientation, values, and identity. Thus, Arab families reflect the old and the new. For example, the fundamental framework of a family and life is challenged for Arabs adjusting to Canadian culture and society. Arab families are patriarchal in structure, with the father serving as the head of household and the mother as the primary caregiver and disciplinarian. 

Intergenerational Conflict 

Several studies have shown that Arab parents restrict their children’s activities, especially those of their daughters, to prevent them from assimilating into the settlement culture. As a result, the women often determine whether the family’s morals and honours have endured the journey abroad. In this sense, children are pinned against their parents and choose between upholding their ethnocultural identity or their parents.

Women must uphold Arab ideals in family settings and take up similar conceptions of dating and marriage.  In a study interviewing first-generation migrants of Arab ethnic origin, females expose the inconsistencies and ultimately gaps in acculturation:

“I told her I liked this guy and I want to date him. She was arguing with me back and forth that I shouldn’t date right now because I’m still too young for that. But I’m like, “Why? I’m 21 – I should start dating and discover myself.” She wouldn’t understand that part because she’s Arabic. She’s like, “You need to marry him right away if you want to stay with him.”

The Radical ‘Canadian’ Girl

Having an Arab partner is one thing, but having a non-Arab partner is another:“She just freaked out on me just because he’s not Arabic. ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that.”

The following experiences reflect the eggshells Arab-Canadian women walk along. Expressing interest, or worse, attraction to a man, is a violation of the modesty code. Navigating Canada’s multicultural society is particularly challenging when patriarchal power structures empower men of Arab descent. Thanks to the hierarchical family structure, sons experience the best of Arab family life and support. Thus, some young Arab men conclude that women who diverge from their families’ cultural ideals and norms are radical and no longer morally tolerable. In an Alberta study, a young Egyptian man articulates:

“ I fear the liberated Canadian girl, hence I only want to marry an Egyptian. In order to be sure she is truly Egyptian, not influenced by Western thoughts and ideas… This position of the Egyptian girl lessen her chances of marriage in Canada, especially to an Egyptian, as compared to her chances in Egypt.” 

Crossing Religious Lines

Between Muslims and Christians, parallel family structures materialize in which women are subordinated to the male breadwinner’s dominance, power, and influence. Studies primarily consist of majority Muslim respondents, yet, Christians amongst them express similar norms and ideals. Coptic Orthodox Christians in Montreal continue to cling to a prominent leader’s warning: marrying a non-Copt, non-Egyptian divides the family and stresses that Canadian culture is incompatible with Egyptian culture.

 One difference between Muslims and Christians is that Muslims believe faith is threatened by intermarriage, notably in more potent expressions than Christians. Having children and continuing the family and religious chain is critical for migrants, meaning that the faith of future children is always a variable.

Living Their Life or Yours

Ultimately, the trivialization of culture, identity, and ethnicity is abstract. As a society, power legitimizes these variables only through social cohesion. With this in mind, the central issue for women may be physical family constraints, yet social and often abstract psychological barriers. Usually, it takes an intense separation of the individual and their family to analyze and interpret the complex and constantly evolving dynamics. 

As a first-generation Canadian with parents of North African descent, it took more than physical separation. The majority of the healing in this respect takes place in the mind. Learning, reading, and writing about the complexities laced in our existence foster the resources required to act and overcome barriers. I am still making my way through these concepts and hope to one day feel stability and peace when faced with the requirements of Canadian and Arab cultures.

Monica Bassili is a fourth-year University of Alberta student double majoring in Political Science and Human Geography and Planning. Monica has been active within her community since grade school and has dedicated her work to benefiting the public good. Furthermore, Monica is working towards three certificates: international learning, sustainability, and Indigenous governance and perspectives. In this way, Monica is able to understand systemic issues in depth and develop intercultural communication skills that serve to facilitate projects in and around Edmonton. Monica’s focus is on public service and specifically, developing tools that serve underrepresented communities and individuals in need.

She writes a weekly column for LCCMedia.

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