Egypt Table of Contents

Importance of Kinship

The family remained the most significant unit of Egyptian society in 1989, and kinship played an important role in virtually all social relations. An individual's social identity was closely linked to his or her status in the network of kin relations. Socialization of children emphasized integration among their kin group. An important goal of marriage was to ensure the continuity of a family. A husband and wife were not considered a family until they produced their first child. After the child's birth, the parents were addressed as father and mother of Muhammad or Amal or whatever was the name of their child. The most deeply held values--honor, dignity, and security--were derived by an individual only as part of a larger kin group. Kinship as a first principle was evident from the most essential to the most trivial aspects of social organization.

Egyptians reckoned descent patrilineally, and the ideal family was an extended family consisting of a man, his wife (or wives), his single and married sons and their wives and children, as well as his unmarried daughters. Younger members of the family deferred to older members, and women deferred to men. The political and economic upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had only limited impact on this family structure. The traditional Sunni religious code for Muslims defined most Muslims' family matters (marriage, guardianship, and inheritance) while canon law defined these matters among Christians. The father controlled families' possessions and income. Even though adult male heads of household wielded immense authority within the family, traditional expectations of parental responsibilities prevented most fathers from exercising the full extent of their powers.

Although an extended family that lived together was considered the ideal, it was not common. A nuclear family consisting of parents and their unmarried children was the norm in cities. Even in rural areas, nuclear families accounted for approximately 80 to 90 percent of all households. Nevertheless, relations with in-laws, grandparents, nieces, and nephews continued to have an impact on the lives of most adults. Newly married couples typically set up their households near the homes of the groom's parents and married brothers. Tensions between wives and their mothers-in-law, as well as tensions among wives of brothers, often disrupted the extended family's harmony.

Both patrilineal descent and the patrilocal extended family functioned differently for men and women. Men were the preferred, valued members of the lineage. A son's birth was occasion to celebrate, whereas the birth of a daughter, especially if she was the first child, was generally greeted with ambivalence. Men were valued both as providers and as progenitors because descent was reckoned through males. Men remained with their consanguineous kin throughout their lives. Lineages commonly kept property in the hands of their males through marriages among cousins. If daughters married within their paternal lineage, then the property they might inherit and transfer to their children would remain within the lineage. For a beduin male or a villager, the ideal bride was the daughter of his father's brother. More than 50 percent of the marriages in rural areas and among the urban lower class were endogamous. Marriage between relatives has been declining among the urban middle and upper classes since the 1952 Revolution, and by the 1980s, most marriages in these social groups were exogamous.

For most men, marriage marked the transition to adulthood. Married men were expected to defer to their fathers, but they still had considerable autonomy because of their responsibility for their families' livelihoods and households. For most women, marriage meant leaving their families' homes and sometimes their home areas. In most cases, marriage merely substituted a woman's dependence on her husband for dependence on her father.

A woman retained membership in her patrilineage regardless of her marital status. Indeed, if members of her lineage were feuding with members of her husband's lineage, the wife was expected to side with her paternal family. A woman was entitled to make demands of her father and brothers, especially in case of marital difficulties, throughout her life. Most women generally preferred to live near home and thus tried to avoid marriages with men whose families lived in other cities or villages. Geographical proximity to patrilineal kin served as a source of emotional support in the early years of marriage when women were most vulnerable to divorce. Women in villages often asked their brothers to hold their inheritances for them. This move helped prevent mistreatment of the women by their in-laws. A divorced woman could have her brother return the inheritance to her as her children approached adulthood.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress