The family is the most important aspect of life to Syrians. It is thought to encompass not only the nuclear family unit but also grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Connections with one’s extended family are deeply valued and act as a crucial support system emotionally, financially and socially. The current Syrian home structure cannot be generalised as many families have been fragmented by conflict and war. Many households are also currently sustained by relatives that work in other countries and send money back. However, whenever possible, several generations will usually live together.
In Syria, the reputation, status and honour of a family define its members. Therefore, people are concerned about dishonouring their family and will often put their family’s reputation before their own needs. One person’s achievement or action can impact the perception of the entire family by others. Privacy of the family (especially its female members) is closely guarded to protect their honour. If a person does diverge from social conventions or standards, their relatives may defer and deny the person’s guilt or even ostracise that person from the family.
Syrian children are raised to obey their parents and respect their elders. They are expected to listen to their parent’s life experience, trust in it and follow their advice to avoid making their own mistakes. When they do make missteps, parents often strictly reprimand them to correct behaviour. A child is expected to have the same religious, political and social views as their family. Divergence from a parent’s belief or disobedience of their wishes is very dishonourable.
The family dynamic is patriarchal; the father or oldest male has the most authority in the household and is expected to be financially responsible for the family. His opinion typically prevails in an argument; in divorce proceedings, it will be presumed that the children automatically belong to him. Although older men are the family decision makers, women and younger men engage in a great deal of negotiation and non-confrontational actions to achieve their own goals.
Families are also patrilineal with descent carried down through the male line. Specific circumstances may vary depending on the religion of a family, but generally only men can inherit assets or pass on the family name.
The mother’s role is largely to fulfil domestic duties and care for the children. Though gender roles are changing and women’s rights to education and equal pay are recognised in the law, women still do not have as much power as men. They carry greater expectations of social compliance and are sometimes seen as particularly vulnerable targets that need to be protected. A mistake or an instance of loss of control by a woman is still sometimes interpreted as a failure of the patriarch of the family to protect her from doing so.
There is substantial social pressure on men to excel in their education so they can work in respected, well-paying positions and provide for their family. Women are also encouraged to receive a good education, but it is widely anticipated that they will marry someone wealthy enough to support them and will therefore not have to work.
Attitudes against female participation in the workforce have changed as the harshness of living conditions in Syria demands their involvement. It can still be considered shameful for a man to earn less than his wife, but female employment is now very valuable to families. Furthermore, the ratio of men to women in Syria has shifted dramatically as more men have been recruited into the army, killed in battle or driven out of the country by hostile forces. Many women have found themselves in a position of self-dependence.
Marriage and Dating
The public dynamic of couples is affected by the strong social expectation that people from opposite genders should not show interest or affection towards one another if anyone else is present. Therefore, Syrians usually keep their relationships and dating lives very private from family and friends. People also tend to marry at a young age, with rural and working-class women generally marrying younger than women who are urban and/or more educated. By law, boys are eligible to marry at 18 and girls are eligible at 17. It is not uncommon for men to be 10 to 15 years older than their wives.
In wealthier, more educated families, young women marry shortly after completing university, and men generally marry after they complete their education and have found regular employment. Children live with their parents until they are married, and children who do not marry remain in their parents’ home.
While some young men and women choose their partners, most Syrian marriages are arranged by their families and are preceded by a formal engagement. An engagement period allows people to get to know one another before marriage, and sometimes an engagement is even broken. There is pressure on men to establish their wealth before they get married. A bride’s parents will rarely consent to a marriage if the man is not financially stable enough to support his future wife.
Divorce is rare among both Muslims and Christians, but it does happen, and divorced women often receive child support. The religious court decides what happens to the children. In most cases, they stay with the mother until they reach 14 years of age or the mother remarries, at which point they go to live with the father.