Marriage Contrast: American and Arab Culture


The basic building block of all societies has always been the family. Within the family, marriage is the one ingredient that seems to affect the family’s wellbeing the most. While marriage is now being redefined in certain societies, by enlarge it remains constant as an institution shared by all cultures throughout the world. The marriage rituals, gender roles, expectations, and the role it plays within a society may differ between societies, nevertheless, in one form or another, it exist in almost all societies. In this paper, we will compare and contrast the marriage institution in the American culture versus the Arabic Middle Eastern culture.

Choosing the Marriage Partner
In general, the basic taboos, like incest, are very much the same between the two cultures. However, unlike the American culture were most of the taboos are based on socially accepted norms; religion plays a significant role in establishing the taboos within the Arab culture. The forbidden relationships like marrying a sister, a brother, or a sun are specifically outlined. One of the major differences in this area is first cousin marriages. In the Arab culture it is not only normal for first cousins to marry each other, but it is also encouraged. In some of the Arab Badwin (Nomads) subculture for instant, it is expected that they get married, and if they don’t, a stigma will be attached to the woman. It is worthy to note here that even western societies, including America, used to engage in the practice marrying a cousin and to a very limited extent it is still practiced in some regions. However, due to the social stigma attached to the practice, it is often done in secrecy.
While the current trend in America is to delay getting married until educational, career, and financial needs are secured, in the Arab culture individuals get married at a young age. Women used to be considered ready for marriage shortly after they reach menstruation. It was not uncommon to see girls as young as 12 or 13 years old married. Men usually married before they reach age 20. In contrast, American women would marry at an average age of 25, while American men marry at an average age of 26 according to national statistics taken in 2000. (National Vital Statistics Report).
Historically, most of the marriages in the Arab culture are arranged marriages. Usually, the parents will chose the partner, inform the man and the woman of their intentions and proceed with the arrangement. In some more liberal communities, parents may try to recommend some choices and allow the children to choose. In the past, there was not much time given for courtship and getting acquainted with each other. In some tribal communities, the two may have not seen each other at all or the marriage could have been arranged during childhood. This practice has changed somewhat in modern Arabia due the Western world influence. If arrangements are made and both families approve, the two can have some influence with regard to the date of marriage and can have a period of supervised courtship. This is in sharp contrast to the American society were the man and the women do not need to not need to gain family approval and can live together for an indefinite period of time before they decide to get married.

Engagement Rituals
In America, the courtship leading to marriage is usually preceded by a dating period. The two interested parties will date to become acquainted with each other and ensure that they are compatible. Dating does not necessarily lead to marriage. As a matter of fact, more often than not the dating begins with no intension of marriage. If the courtship develops into a more “serious relationship”, the two begin to contemplate marriage. Once the two formally agree to get married, the process enters the engagement period. At this time, it is symbolic for the man to give the woman an engagement ring as symbol of marriage agreement. In the Arab, culture, once the parents have agreed in principle to the marriage, details of the financial agreement would be worked out before the engagement is announced. One of the major things to work out is usually the Maher (also know as dowry or bridewealth). In the Arab culture, the groom must agree to pay the family of the bride money, and provide jewelry and other personnel items to the bride. Once the Maher has been arranged, they two families would announce the engaging in a gathering arranged for this purpose. Again, like most of the other traditional rituals mentioned, due Western influence this process has been also affected. The groom in today’s Arab society will give the bride a ring as a symbol of their engagement. However, unlike the American culture, there will not be any co-habitation during this period and engaging in any sexual activities is strictly forbidden.

Wedding Rituals
The wedding rituals take place on Thursday night and they are varied somewhat between different Arab communities. For instant, the Badwin throughout the Persian Gulf region and Jordan, celebrated the wedding with a feast attended by members of both families and in most cases the entire tribe. Normally the celebration is held outdoors in large tents erected for this purpose with males being separate from females. In some tribes the celebration may last seven days. In the more modern Arab culture the celebration is different. The feast is normally held at the groom’s house or his parents’ house. The more affluent members of society would hold the celebration at a ballroom a similar venue. The house would be decorated with light, as Americans do around Christmas, and both men and women attend the celebration together. There will be music playing and the groom would sit high on a pedestal for all to see. Later in the evening, the bride would be escorted, by members of her family, to sit next the groom on the pedestal.
In the American culture the wedding ceremonies also varies dependant on the couples religious beliefs and ethnic background. However, in general the ceremonies will involve some sort of a religious ceremony at the church, synagogue, or wedding chapels followed by a reception at a parents’ home or a reception hall. The religious ceremonies are a distinct difference between the two cultures. In the Arab culture the religious ceremony with the official proclamation of the marriage is done in private, while in the American culture it is a major part of the public expression.

The Two Societies View on Marriage
In the Arab culture marriage is still defined as the union between a man and a woman. This definition is based on religious beliefs. In the American culture, due to the rise of unconventional forms of marriages, the definition is not as clear. Scholars who societies tend to agree with the American culture on the fact that marriage cannot be universally defined. The view of Americans on marriage has also changed dramatically over the years, however, it is widely accepted in the American society that marriage is built on love and romance with emphasis on the individual. The Christianity defined marriages of couples accept one another for better or for worse are no longer valid in American society. Americans place high value on individualism and success ideals and less on family values and compromise. The Arab culture on the other hand, look at marriage as bringing two families and resources together. Individualism, especially for the wife, is not stressed and the success of the family is the main goal. Unfortunately, that sometimes means the goal of the husband become the goal of the family and the wife has little influence.

In the American society, the law dictate that the marriage be monogamous (a person is married to only one person at the time). Where in the Arab culture the law allows for polygyny (a man can be married to more than one woman at the same time). Under Islamic law, which is practiced in one form or another in all Arab countries, a man can legally have as many as four wives at the same time. Members of the Mormon religion in the United States practiced polygyny in the past and several attempts to legalize the practice have failed.

Respect the Differences
The differences highlighted between the two cultures are in no mean intended to degrade or indict either culture. When looking at differences between cultures one must not be judgmental. What works for one society my not work for another due to a number of reasons. Our society in America has evolved over the past two centuries to arrive to where it’s at today. Some of the marriage practices that are prevalent in the Arab world today were practiced in our American society in the past. We have a completely different dynamics within our American society. The “melting pot” concept has shaped a lot of our norms and the separation of state and church has limited the religious influence. The Arab culture has evolved over thousands of years and religion is a very integral part of the culture. In both cultures, however, the basic belief in marriage as the glue that holds the family together is prevalent. Social issues like divorce, teenage pregnancy, equal rights, women’s rights, and family violence are affecting all societies. By respecting other societies and accepting them as they are, we may be able to learn from each other and better our own society.

Reference
Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steve M. Tipton.
Habits of the Heart (updated edition). Los Angeles.
John A Perry and Erna K. Perry. Contemporary Society, an Introduction to Social Science. (10th ed.).
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Ruqaiyyah Maqsood. Muslim Marriage Guide (2nd ed.). New Delhi
American Marriage Culture. Encarta Encyclopedia. Online.
Available at: http://encarta.msn.com
Arabic Marriage Culture. Encarta Encyclopedia. Online.
Available at: http://encarta.msn.com/encnet/refpages/
Marriage Statistics. U.S. Census Bureau. Online.
Available at: www.census.gov
Marriage Statistics. National Vital Statistics. Online.
Available at: www.cdc.gov

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