Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Brother-Sister Sibling Relationships in Saudi Arabia: Some Saudi Women Bloggers Share Their Perspectives

Saudi Bedouin brother and sister playing with their father, October 2003, Photograph by Reza for National Geographic

Sibling relationships have long interested me in terms of both the impact they have, as my patients attest to, and the relative neglect of their importance in psychotherapy research, teaching, and practice. This is one of the reasons I was struck by an initiative of blogger Hala Al-Dosari, of Hala_in_USA, to invite a number of Saudi women bloggers to do a post on their brother-sister relationships. Another reason was, of course, the insights these particular excellent bloggers bring to the relationship, including from a cultural perspective.

Saudi children at a Ramadan celebration, Al-Faisaliyah Mall, Riyadh, 2009

I have no brothers. My parents agreed prior to marriage to have 2 children only, no matter the gender. This was a direct reflection of my mother's being the youngest of 12 (10 living; 6 boys and 4 girls; 2 girls deceased in toddlerhood) in an immigrant Italian family struggling financially; and of having 6 older brothers who had the entitlements of boys in a traditional Italian family.

Her oldest brother was a father adjudant of the disciplinarian type; the next 3 were a "band of brothers", into mischief, and with little tolerance for the "young kids" (the last 4 children). The 5th brother--4 years older than  my mother--was wonderful, and protective as the oldest of the "young kids". He was a bright student, excellent swimmer, and a waterpolo player for the high school team, who sadly contracted nephritis and died at the age of 19. My mother was "sick" for a year, her mother never fully recovered.

The 6th brother was the closest in age to my mother (2 years older), and they were the closest in all things, with shared interests, hobbies, and secrets. He was the best man for my Dad at my parents' wedding, as they had become best friends too. He was my favourite uncle, and the one I was closest to growing up. Sadly, despite being slim and appearing fit, he had a massive heart attack and died--age 42. Smoker! (also male, and genetic loading) That death probably finished off my grandmother emotionally, as he was her favourite of all her children, and the one who took care of her always, before and after marriage and children of his own.

I have often wished I had a brother, especially when I am more than usually perplexed by Y chromosome people. Fortunately the hub and male friends step into the void with explanations and guesses, for which I am grateful. I recognize that not having brothers in a more traditional society would be a more significant difficulty--at least in the eyes of the traditional members of the society, and perhaps in the laws. In Saudi, where having a mahrem is more necessary, brothers, and many of them, may be more of an asset.

From the WHO site on Public Oral Health programmes, this one part of the Saudi programme for primary public school children

When I think of patients' stories of their brothers, I think of 2 extremes. One woman in her 20s had been raped in a particularly sadistic, perverse, and life-threatening manner. Her sanity was probably saved in large part by having 6 very supportive and normal brothers, who stepped up on this issue too, including attending a family meeting, and coping very well, with the news for some that the "assault" was sexual assault, and for all, that it was by someone of a similar psychopathology to that of convicted serial rapist Paul Bernardo. They encouraged her in her therapy, schooling and career, and gave support to her fiance as well. She later married him. He had been an exemplar of "I don't understand this, but I'm willing to help no matter what"; and had helped get her into therapy initially, and to stay in treatment.

The other extreme was a woman, also in her 20s whose one brother was "difficult", not frankly abusive, but beyond the normal sibling torments of childhood, and totally distinct from the oldest brother, who was already out of the house for much of her childhood, and certainly her teen years. I used to stew over how common it would be for a teenaged brother to reply to his teenaged sister, "Suck me dry!"; what it really meant; why she was so convinced he would sexually abuse children, including his own; and what she wasn't telling me about their relationship. She always denied any sexual abuse, but she was frantic when he got engaged, and felt she had a duty to warn his future wife, to protect future children. Maybe it was her overactive imagination at work--maybe.

The passionate kiss of Angelina Jolie and her Oscar date, her brother, combined with her gushing Oscar speech about him, led to rumours of an incestuous relationship

Some of the themes alluded to above are addressed by the Saudi women bloggers participating in this theme of "Brotherly Love": importance of order in the sibling line; shared interests and secrets; social pressures; protectiveness, companionship and encouragement; and, sadly, abuse of different types. Some aspects of brother-sister relationships are more specific to Saudi.

In addition to the preference for sons in many conservative patriarchal societies, male privilege is encoded in Saudi law, where women are more disenfranchised officially than in many countries, including other Muslim and Arab ones. The mahrem system as constructed in Saudi, where the mahrem is not just a woman's representative for the marriage contract, but the legal guardian for a woman at all stages of her life and in all formal social and legal interactions, exaggerates this privilege and power differential. In addition to giving a brother--whether simpatico or not--inordinate power, gender segregation in Saudi may make sibling relationships even more likely to have a greater impact on each one's impression of the opposite sex. And last, but not least, this may be an unwelcome role for brothers, and give their wives inordinate power too.

To learn more, and to gain insight about the sibling relationships of some Saudi sisters and their brothers, I highly recommend reading the participating posts:

Hala of Hala_in_USA, Brotherly Love
A much anticipated younger brother, overly feted and disproportionately loved by mother; background information on sibling relationships, including studies of sibling relationships in Saudi.

Wafa' of My World and More, My Brothers and I
3 brothers, in a home rife with domestic violence and addictions, including mental, physical and sexual abuse by brothers

Najla, of Najla, "* أنا وأخي " ["My Brother and I*"]
2 loving supportive brothers, family and education played a role in making them open to their sisters' full participation in society. This makes them distinct from many brothers who can be domineering, always monitoring their sisters to prevent "shameful" behaviours

Omaima Al Najjar of Saudi Woman Speaks Out,  "The Forever Bond"
3 loving brothers with distinct personalities and with whom she is close despite geographical distances growing up. In some ways they reflect age relationships: the older brother Super Hero, the peer Rival, and the younger "Terror".

Eman of Saudiwoman's Weblog, pending
Feda of Feda's Blog, pending

The theme included an open invitation for others to join in, and I am aware of the following:

Naz of Somalianarab Princess, Me, My Brothers, and the Rest
On the death of her father, Naz' Somali mother learns that she is the second wife; the first is a Saudi and has 2 sons, while Naz is one of four daughters; the 2 wives decide to form a bond rather than curse their deceased husband, and the children do as well; not exactly "The Brady Bunch Saudi-Style", but generally positive.

If you have written one, decide to write one, or know of others, please add them in the comments and I will include them here.

If you are a Saudi man and blogger, perhaps you could start a similar theme on Saudi brothers' perspectives on their relationships with their sisters.

Dr Mona Simpson, UCLA English Literature Professor, and novelist, giving a reading

Steve Jobs, full biological brother of Mona Simpson; the first born of their parents, then graduate students;
they traveled out of state for his birth, gave him up for adoption, then later married and had Mona;
AKA CEO and co-founder of Apple

Was has been your experience of cross-gender sibling relationships?
How much does family, and/or culture impact on your sibling relationships or sibling relationships in general?
If you are Saudi, how much does the mahrem system impact your sibling relationships?
How much does Arab culture, as one of the collective and shame-based cultures contribute to the power siblings have?
What do you see as common dynamics across cultures, and what ones are unique?
Do you have cousins you feel as close to as siblings, or prefer to your siblings?
Any other comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

The Jackson 5 with sisters Rebbie, La Toya, and Janet--missing, older brother Jermaine, and Joh'Vonnie Jackson, a half sister, from father Joe's earlier liaison


Anonymous said...

I'd love to take part in this!

AFIFA said...

Luckily or unluckily i dont have a biological brother! i love all my younger cousin brothers, but loathe all my elder cousin brothers! It's hard to have a casual sibling relationship with them or may be it is not. Only in my case they were all too flirtatious to behave like big brothers! :P

Chiara said...

Amna--great! When you have done your post, I will see it in Google Reader and post the link with the others in this post. I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say on the topic! Thanks for your comment!

Afifa--Thank you for the comment and the reminder that cousins are often as close as siblings in Arab and other cultures. The religious differences in who one is allowed to marry probably do play a role in such relationships. In Islam 1st cousin marriages are allowed, as most reading here know.

In Catholicism it is forbidden to marry 1st or 2nd degree cousins (used to be up to the 7th degree--which put a lot of villagers in Church marriages that were technically too close). In Protestantism the taboo is for 1st degree cousins.

It is legal in Canada and in most States of the USA to marry a 1st cousin.

One Saudi blogger is planning to do a post on the sisterly duties she has for her male cousins, and it will be linked here.

If you would like to write something, let me know by email and we could arrange a forum and a link back to this post.

Thanks again for your comment, and I do hope you will write something!

Susanne said...

Yes, I was going to say that it is legal to marry first cousins here, but most people I know find the thought of that ewwwwie. Just like I found that picture of Angelina and her brother. And also brother and sister figure skating pairs. :)

I am the oldest of four children - 2 girls, 2 boys. And I've always felt I was my dad's favorite. ;-)

Chiara said...

Susanne-Yes, despite the legalities it is not culturally acceptable in North America for first cousins to marry--despite the Elvis film "Kissin' Cousins" :).

Angelina and her brother were "inappropriate" shall we call it. I don't mind figure skating brother-sister pairs since I realize that the romance is a performance. A side note: Battle of the Blades, the CBC reality show pairing former NHL players with figure skaters (no brother sister teams) starts Oct 3!

I'm sure you were your dad's favourite, and that you kept the others in line! :D

One of my American friends who is a theatre specialist, brags about how she used to make her little brothers dress up and act out the plays she "starred" in, when they were growing up. When she tells it, it is very funny--maybe not to her brothers though! :D

Thanks for your comment!

Wendy said...

I have siblings in-law in Saudi and Sudan. As an outsider I can observe the relationships of the siblings - boys in Saudi and girls in Sudan - with their brother, the Canadian. I am very happy that I am not married to a Saudi brother and all the responsibilities it brings even to female members living in another country. My husband lives a Canadian life with Canadian responsibilities and those responsibilities apply only to his wife. I see the stress that comes between brothers and sisters in male dominated countries ... stesses I've never experienced with my own siblings and that's about all I can say regarding this blog topic.

Chiara said...

Wendy--thanks for your comment, and sharing your observations and experiences. You have touched on one of the key, and rarely discussed potential issues in a bi-cultural marriage. I know 2 cases, one a Moroccan-American marriage, the other a Japanese-Australian one, where obligations to a sibling became a major issue in marital therapy. Usually there is a compromise on what support one would expect in Western vs Eastern culture. Thanks again!

coolred38 said...

I have an older brother, he is the oldest of all of us, but I have spent little time with him as my mother sent him to live with my real father when he was 12. She feared he was nearing the size and mentality in which he thought he could take on our abusive father...she sent him away to save him. In my mind he was always the lucky one that got away and I guess I grew up resenting him for that

I have 3 sisters, 2 older and one younger. One of the older ones died at the age of 5 and I was 4. We we were extremely close and I miss her still. My other older and my younger sister never had anything in common and being the middle child...I quite often felt forgotten and alone. Little sister was the princess and older sister was the trouble makers and drama queen...I was...just there.

It's nice to know some siblings get along and actually enjoy being around each other. LOL

Medina said...

I have several sisters and brothers who are all older than me. I am close to my sisters who are olderan than me of 3 to 10 years but my relationship with my eldest sisters and brothers are like my relationship with my parents, more respect and formal.

oby said...

I am the eldest of three siblings. For whatever reason my sister has decided long ago that her life was made miserable by me despite the fact that I and everyone around us seems to think that she and I had pretty identical lives in many ways. Same schools( I did well...became a doctor...she did not and always had a bit of a persecution complex about the teachers,) worked at the same after school jobs...(I was praised by supervisors for my attentiveness and work ethic she was always reprimanded for not working and rather trying to get around it), I was never fired from a job, she was fired from every job she had except her government one.

In truth, my parents who will readily admit to this, did not help me at all financially once I left their house to attend college. Even prior to that other than basics I was pretty independent from asking them for money. I didn't really think to ask...we didn't have a great deal of financial resources so I just took care of things myself. I worked and took care of my own needs...my sister on the other hand, was helped by my parents quite a lot financially and still had trouble in college and accused them of never helping her.

I think it boils down to not only birth order but a way of looking at the world. Either you look at it as a responsibility to take on or you look at it from a position of entitlement. She was not abused or treated very much different. But of course, things were different and their way of managing her had to be different than me because I was more self motivated than she. She required much more of their time and energy and in fairness, concern.

We are basically estranged...her choice and one which took me a long time to embrace. She has been notified that if she ever decides to walk through that door she will be welcomed. so far she has chosen not to. Used to bother me but doesn't at all anymore.

My brother who was a bit outside this whole thing was basically pushed along by my parents. He finally found his way and is now fine in all respects.

Majed said...

There is no doubt in mind that there are certain factors, that can certainly derange the innate love and affection between siblings, love and affection that manifest itself in how they share their most serious secrets and silliest of their silly fears and look for recourse in one another when comfort and protection needed and lead instead to jealousy and hatred that can go as far as wishing one dies or get hurt.
among the main factors that plays a role in spreading bad blood between siblings are for example only.
- The preference of one gender over the other, reasons for which vary from one society and the other, but generally most prefer male over female, in arab societies even though girls are considered to be blank checks, the amount they can put on, varies according to age,beauty,family status and sometimes earning capabilities, here I think they have no reason to prefer males ,yet males are prefered because they are supposed to be the stallions that guaranty the continuation of their (noble) lineage and to be their crutches in old age, in other societies girls mean huge financial burden to families already poor and hardly fulfill their basic needs, specially when it comes to marriage since girls of those societies even though are (the most obedient, loving, caring,managing,content and the most devoted to their families) they need to bring with them all that is needed to stablish a new family from A to Z in addition to gold and dowry money, may be it is in india only, but india is (mashallah) 20% of the whole world.But things started to change a little since girls started to get educated and work and families dont have to worry about them any more.
- another reason but is a result of the above, as preferring boys can be construed by them as an authority to control and show superiority over girls and play the boss and guardian some time go as far in that as to try to extend their hegemony over even the mother who gave them birth, and the mother who tolerate that I think is stupid, and most mothers do tolerate it. how many a times I see in KSA a bunch of women with all sings of maturity on them along with their mother led as herd of sheeps by a small boy who every now and then gives them orders to come here and go there, cover this or that, shouting on them calling names and asking them to behave themselves I think this kind of attidude makes a very hateful peson of him to his sisters and make them have no feeling towards him.
I would like to clear one point, that molestation among siblings of certain age I am not sure upto what age must not be confused with sexual curiosity and exploration of differences that does happen in childhood between siblings,
and most societies see it as unharmful and normal unless it goes too far and it only goes too far when children are exposed to obscene behaviors by parents ,other or media, and children in KSA are abnormally aware sexully in very young age, what I would think of when a 7 years old child who supposed to innocent tells me angrily why I would look at his mother, or what I would think of, when I ask very very young children playing outside, and tell them it is very hot go in, and they reply me that father is (riding) mom well this the word they use here to describe copulation, and the kind of clothes people (mother,father,sisters and brother wear at home is itself is molestation and strict gender segregation also plays major role in hyper-sexuality in both genders with incestuous reltion is only vent.

Majed said...

Our family,may be also other families like ours, do not experience the problem of male preference.

I am the eldest of (mashallah) seven siblings, four boys and three girls, my father is of the kind who believes that girls are mercy of God, and my mother loves girls too, after my (advent) to this world they were happy and it took them 4 years to give it another try, my mother wanted a girl this time,but it was my second brother, this is when my mother got concerned and speeded it up a little, within less than 2 years another brother, this time she cried for days, another one after less than 2 years she cried even more and refused to see him for days. The gap got even shorter, then thank God, it was my first gorgeous sister with all the happiness on the part of our parents and all that love bestowed on her by them even though they tried to be fair, naturally our share was jealousy and the feeling of being prejudiced, specially that was felt by younger brothers.

Even though my mother used to be very cautious, yet there was no scape from those stupid questions they used to ask her like who cut hers Mom, and how she pisses, and does it hurt ? there was another problem as my sister refused to be different she played our games worn our wears and did not accept ear rings did not want long hair, she was becoming boyish, and her choice was welcomed by the band and we loved her, and considered her one of us, here my mother thought of bringing her company after 4 years, another sister came this one even more beautiful, and shortly afterwards she decided to scrape it off for the last baby and it was my youngest and the most wonderful and delicate sister.
We all are different I am altruist with inferiority complex, and never want to break a heart ,No(2) decisive,strict,cunning No (3) inactive, careless insensible No(4) capitalist, showy,superiority complex (5) still boyish,loving,kind (6) selfish, demanding, envious (7) obliging,gentle, patient.
but we all love each other ,differences happen a lot but we never stop talking to each other not even for a day we never let down each other when needed and never ask back anything given because we are sure we will get when our turn comes, girls do not have any obligations yet have all the rights the brohers have. it sound perfect but that is the truth, as for cousins we like our cousins very much, and My female cousins are the only girls I have ever fellen in love with an I am married to a cousin of mine and could never be happier.

patintera said...

Hi! Just something about that photo of the Jackson kids. The missing brother is actually Jermaine and Randy is the boy Michael was pointing at. Joh'Vonnie, meanwhile, is a Joe's love child from a mistress.

Chiara said...

Patintera-Welcome to the blog, and thanks for this comment and correction! I have corrected the caption on both accounts. I hope you will also comment on older and newer posts of interest. Thanks again!


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