Family is the most important aspect of life for Palestinians. An individual's family is thought to encompass not only their (i.e. parents and children), but also their extended family (e.g. grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins). A Palestinian’s family represents the deepest connection to their origin, heritage and identity. This is especially important for the , who may seek to maintain these links outside of Palestine. Many Palestinians take deep pride in their family’s reputation and honour (see Honour in Core Concepts).
Family solidarity is one of the strongest cultural features to have survived the effects of conflict, occupation and displacement (see Core Concepts).1 Relationships among family members are usually close-knit, with relatives commonly living, working and socialising together throughout their lives. The extended family is also deeply valued, providing emotional, financial and social support. This is particularly strong in the Palestinian Territories where government social services are generally unable to meet basic needs. Extended families often pool their resources to support each other when money is needed for essential expenses (e.g. medical reasons, university expenses, home loans).2 Communal family values are especially strong among Bedouins (see Bedouin Tribes in Core Concepts).
Palestinian families are traditionally quite large in size. Many older Palestinians were raised in families of up to 10 siblings or more. However, conflict and economic difficulties have seen the size of most Palestinian households decrease over past decades. Today, the average household size in the Palestinian Territories is four to six people.3 Some Bedouin families continue to have quite large households with the entire extended family living together as a tribe or .
Palestinian families are generally patrilineal and , meaning women move into their husband’s house at marriage and the family lineage is carried through the male line. Adult children usually live in their parents’ house until they are married or finish their education. Those children who move out or buy their own home often try to find neighbouring houses close to their parents’. However, many young professionals may move further away to other towns or cities for employment opportunities.
The formation and structure of Palestinian families also have been impacted by experiences of conflict, occupation and displacement. For example, many Palestinian families have had relatives arrested or killed (usually men), forcing other family members to take on new independent roles. It is also now common for households to be supported by relatives who live and work in other countries and send back .
Palestinian children are raised with a sense of responsibility and obedience to their parents. Most people's decisions continue to be influenced by their parents’ advice in adulthood, especially for women. There is deep cultural respect for one’s elders that also translates into respect for one’s family identity and heritage. In-laws often play a large role in raising grandchildren, giving Palestinian women more mobility to work outside of the home.
Parents often support their children financially into adulthood (depending on their monetary capabilities). In return, there is a cultural expectation that children, usually the eldest son, will take care of their parents/grandparents into their old age. For example, widowed parents usually live with their eldest son (or daughter if they have no sons). However, if circumstances change, the role will be adopted by the most financially stable child or the family as a whole.
Gender roles can vary significantly depending on one’s level of conservatism, income status, urbanisation and location. However, Palestinian society and families are broadly . Traditionally, the father or oldest male is the head of the family and holds the most authority and respect in the household. He is also traditionally expected to be financially responsible for the family (although this is changing). Women are often seen as the foundation of the family that keeps bonds strong. The mother’s role is largely to fulfil domestic duties as the homemaker and care for the children.
Traditional gender roles are quite distinct in some families, with sons and daughters expected to help their father and mother with duties respectively. For example, most of the women of a household typically cook together and share other responsibilities. Many men contribute to the domestic housework in their households, though some may see this as a sign of weakness or lack of manhood. However, the status and role of the father as the family breadwinner has shifted in many households – partly due to the effects of poverty, displacement and conflict.
Women traditionally carry greater expectations of social compliance than men and are often seen as particularly vulnerable targets that need to be protected. They are required to show modesty and not bring shame to their family by immodest or immoral behaviour. Meanwhile, fathers and husbands may see it as their duty to be the guardians of family honour and keep their female family members free from scandal (see Honour in Core Concepts). Fathers and brothers are generally expected to be responsible for female family members socially and financially until they are married – at which point a woman’s husband will assume responsibility for her. The senior male of the family has the authority to make decisions about his female family members’ behaviour in order to preserve the family honour. Family positions on this may vary depending on their social attitudes.
The public role of Palestinian women has changed dramatically since the Nakba (‘catastrophe’) and continues to vary between territories, regions and local townships. Economic hardship and the departure of many men in search of jobs made women’s entry into the workforce a necessity. Many women became the sole breadwinners of the household for the first time. It is believed female-headed households made up an estimated 11% of households in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2018.4 Palestinian women have also been very politically active in the struggle for independence – both within the Palestinian Territories and abroad. However, some also argue that Israeli occupation and the resulting humanitarian crisis have exacerbated existing gender inequalities.5
Most Palestinian women are well-educated, with more enrolled in schools and pursuing university educations than males in West Bank and Gaza.6 However, they have also been hardest hit by the employment crisis, especially younger women seeking to enter the workforce. In the second quarter of 2018, female unemployment in Gaza was 78.3% compared to 44.5% for male unemployment.7 In East Jerusalem, only 6.7% of women were in the labour force, compared to 56.4% of men.8 Unemployment is highest among more highly educated women, demonstrating the continued incompatibility between the skill sets of educated women and labour market demands.9
There also continues to be a cultural preference for women to be stay-at-home mothers or wives. Therefore, single women tend to be more active in the workforce. As a generalisation of the Palestinian Territories, cities in the West Bank are usually more progressive in their approach towards female participation and leadership. For example, women commonly have more decision-making power and independence in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah. Attitudes tend to be more conservative in rural areas of the West Bank and throughout Gaza.
Dating and Marriage
Palestinians are generally quite conservative in their ideals of marriage and dating, reflecting traditional Arab and Islamic values. People are quite protective and with regard to women especially. Casual dating is often strongly disapproved of among Palestinian society. In the Palestinian Territories, it is common for a couple to be introduced by families and spend time getting to know one another before deciding whether they want to marry or not. It is generally considered inappropriate for the couple to see one another alone or in private during this period of acquaintance. Fathers may arrange the marriage of their son or daughter by speaking with the male head of another family. Once an agreement is reached, female family members commonly play a role in introducing the couple. Brides are usually asked whether they fully consent to the marriage before wedding arrangements are made.
Some of the younger generation may have more liberal understandings of relationships, with urban elite Palestinians meeting and choosing their partner without family involvement. Some may meet through university, youth empowerment programs and other initiatives that create spaces for men and women to meet and interact. It is also very common for Palestinians living outside the Palestinian Territories to marry people from other countries or cultures. However, there is a general expectation that any ‘dating’ occurs with the end goal of marriage in mind.
There is often an age gap between women and their husbands. For many years, it was common for women to marry before the age of 18. However, the Palestinian Authority outlawed child marriage in 2019, raising the age of consent to 18. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the median age of first marriage in the Palestinian Territories in 2018 was 25.1 for men and 20.5 for women.10 The rate of divorce is quite low in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.11 However, women are more likely to be widowed or remain single after separation, while men are more likely to remarry after the death of a spouse.
Palestinian weddings are very elaborate and large, often spanning a number of days and involving much food, music and dancing. Hundreds of people may be invited or, in some smaller communities, the entire village or township may attend. It is traditional for the bride to be carried in a parade to the groom’s home. Newlywed couples usually move into the groom’s parents’ home after marriage. The time at which they move out (if they do) generally depends on their financial capacity to rent or buy a house.
is practiced in some communities, whereby a man may have up to four wives in accordance with Islamic law. However, this is observed more often among Bedouin families. Generally, Bedouins follow more traditional marriage practices and marry at younger ages. While some men may marry other non-Bedouin Palestinians, it is rare for Bedouin women to marry non-Bedouins (see Bedouin Tribes in Core Concepts).
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