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