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Reviewed by:
  • Arab Family Studies: Critical Reviews ed. by Suad Joseph
  • Randa Tawil (bio)
Arab Family Studies: Critical Reviews
Suad Joseph, ed.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2018
614 pages. isbn 9780815654247

Many scholars take for granted that family relations make up an essential part of social and political life in the Middle East, yet few scholars use “family” as a central analytic in their study. Considering the fall of patrilinear governments like those of Kaddafi, Mubarak, and Hussein, and the continued emigrations from Syria and Libya among other countries, an examination of the changing meaning of family appears a prerequisite for any study of the region. For this reason, Suad Joseph’s extensive edited volume Arab Family Studies: Critical Reviews is an important resource for scholars and policy makers who study the Arabic-speaking world. While at times uneven, the volume is nevertheless a good starting point for scholars and students interested in family studies, as well as a persuasive argument for family as a critical field of scholarship.

Joseph, an accomplished social scientist who has studied families in Lebanon for more than twenty years, assembled dozens of leading scholars in the fields of history, political science, anthropology, and sociology to gather scholarly literature on the family for each country in the Arab League. The result is an immense collection of seventeen country-specific chapters (with two chapters covering more than one country) and seven that concentrate on thematic issues. The country chapters are broken into the regions of North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia), the eastern Arab states (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria), and the Arab Gulf (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman, Qatar and Bahrain, Yemen). The thematic chapters focus on feminism, migration, law, education, fertility, war, and media.

While scholarship on each country varies, most of the essays uncover three paradigms through which the family has been studied: Orientalism, functionalism, and feminism. Almost every essay begins with a discussion of European travelogues and early anthropological projects that described the Arab family as unchanging, timeless, and [End Page 69] traditional in comparison to the changing and “modern” West. As many of these scholars show, the legacies of these writings are still felt in the region, especially in countries that have a dearth of other scholarship. Cawo Mohammed Abdi notes in her essay on Somalia that scant literature on families after the colonial period forced her to overly rely on European anthropological studies in her review (96).

Functionalist and structuralist theories of the family also predominated each essay. A theory of anthropology that gained popularity in the 1960s, structuralist analysis views institutions like the family as a functional piece of larger society. Scholars used description to analyze actions and beliefs of families and to explain how they fit into the larger society. These studies, as pointed out by Seteney Shami in her essay on Jordan, were linked to development and to assessing the degree to which the family could be part of the modernization of the region. Like earlier colonial models, these studies saw the family as unchanging and inhibiting modernization, instead of adapting and accommodating to it in unexpected ways. Most essays in the volume show a shift toward feminist scholarship in the 1990s, focusing on gender inequality, gendered labor, and war and on migration’s effect on women and children. Each country’s unique history and relationship with imperialism, war, and migration affected the substance of studies; however, the paradigms remained surprisingly consistent across countries.

One of the most helpful aspects of each essay was the scholar’s assessment of resources available for studying the Arab family. Scholars made special effort to use multilingual sources, with an emphasis on those in the Arabic language, and discussed their availability for researchers. The bibliography and notes at the end of each essay seem as helpful to students and researchers as the essays themselves, because finding sources seems to have been one of the biggest challenges in compiling the volume.

The thematic chapters are the most engaging part of the volume, since they point out the connections between the different states and overarching issues in the region. Despite the success of these chapters and...


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