By Cady Hekmat
The mother of one of my friends once told us about the tragedy of dealing with her mother-in-law, who struggled with Alzheimer's for a few years before she died. The mother told us embarrassing, painful, and at times, exhausting stories. I could not imagine myself dealing with what she had had to go through with her husband’s mother. So, I spontaneously asked her: “Why didn't you send her to a nursing home?” The lady looked at me as if I had insulted her and said: "If my husband had asked me to do this to his mother, I would never have agreed to do it. Treatment is reciprocal; what goes around comes around; my children will do the same to me when I am old. What would people say?" The lady's angry response shocked me; I immediately apologized. Since then, I have thought a lot about her reaction and have attempted to analyse it for a long time. In this article, I have written down the outcomes of my enquiry on the duality of the daughter/mother-in-law relationship and the changes that have occurred to it in Arab culture.
In the past, the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in Arab societies was crucial and super sensitive. It was not easy for any man to marry a woman without his mother's consent and approval. In most cases, the mother would choose a potential bride then introduce her to her son to accept or reject. She was the one who would have the first word in the process of choosing the bride-to-be, and sometimes the last word as well. That is why the bride and her family would seek to please the future husband’s mother in the first place. The mother gained this ultimate power and status from the religious scripts, the basis of Arab culture, from which the traditions have continued to evolve over the generations.
It is not surprising that the mother would choose her daughter-in-law; this woman would live with her and her son in the same house and would do the housework and raise her grandchildren under her supervision. Her daughter-in-law would also replace her own daughter, who would get married and move out to another house and become a daughter-in-law of another woman. When that happened, the mother-in-law could enforce her control over the entire home. She had the power to interfere and control every little and big thing. If she had more than one married son, all living under the same roof, she would often create an atmosphere between her daughters-in-law where they would compete to please her and get her blessing. Often, this competitive environment turned into a hostile atmosphere that would result in enmities between the daughters-in-law on the one hand and between the daughters-in-law and the mother-in-law on the other.
The mother in Arab culture has a sacred status. These societies judge people's ethics and morals on how they treat their parents. The mother's exalted position had contributed to how Arab women viewed marriage in the past. It was the most important goal for them; it represented the main turning point in their lives and self-consciousness. That is because marriage is the only way for one of them to become a mother. There is no such thing as a single mother in Arab culture, and there is no motherhood outside the framework of the marriage relationship. Moreover, motherhood after marriage is not an option that a wife can postpone. When she marries, she must have children immediately; otherwise the couple’s relationship becomes a subject for doubt and questioning. Thus, motherhood itself became a goal. The mother's authority over her children when they are still children, after they reach puberty, and when they get married, was an absolute authority one should not underestimate.
Children in Arab societies learn stories while growing up about the punishment that awaits those who mistreat their parents, all of which revolve around the concept of karma: what you give to your children today, they will reciprocate to you tomorrow. This explains why the woman mentioned at the beginning of this article insisted that she must care for her mother-in-law in her home. She believed that if she mistreated her mother-in-law, her children would do the same to her when they grew up. However, if she took good care of her mother-in-law, her children would take good care of her when she was old and frail. These cultural concepts explain why nursing and care homes for the elderly have gained a bad reputation in Arab societies, even though they provide a more professional and good quality service. Whoever today puts one of their parents in these care homes is judged as ungrateful to those who raised and cared for them. The expectation is that their own children will in future leave them to die alone in such places.
All these values are healthy. The concepts of family support and respecting the old are things one cannot undervalue when attempting to reduce the cases of isolation, anxiety, depression, and suicide. Society needs to enhance these values today more than ever before. But from another perspective, it is known that any human being, when given an authority that is either absolute or sacred, will most likely abuse it without oversight, quality control, and accountability. There is an Arab saying: "Feeling safe from questioning leads to misbehaving." Such absolute power can result in the wife getting the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, she suffers under the ultimate power given to the husband in a patriarchal society and, on the other, under the power over her given to his mother. Even though the mother-in-law is an oppressed female in a patriarchal society, precisely like her daughter-in-law, she still rules her with the master-slave mentality when she has the chance.
The relationship between the two women has remained sensitive, with hidden hostility and fluctuations. This appears in our folk stories and songs in contradictory ways. Sometimes, the songs favour the poor daughter-in-law and attack the mother-in-law's unquestioned authority and domination. Other folk songs and stories show solidarity with the mother-in-law's rights and the daughter-in-law’s obligation to obey her.
However, the whole nature of this relationship began to change when education became a right for girls. Families became more eager to educate their daughters for the sake of employment and to give them a sense of security and independence in a society that discriminates against them based on their gender. This new emphasis on educating girls has brought about radical changes in the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. As time went by, the mother-in-law began to prefer an educated bride for her son. This would ensure a good education for her grandchildren and secure an additional income for the family which would help her son financially. Moreover she (and her son) would benefit from the fact that educated and employed women in these societies are treated with much greater respect than before, elevating their social status. As Arab women started to receive a good education and jobs, the shape of family relationships began to change. Each son had his own home and independent life, away from the influence of his parents. Also, it changed the way girls viewed marriage; they became less eager to rush into it and began to take their time to rethink the advantages and disadvantages and what value this relationship could add to their lives. The daughter-in-law started to have less contact with her mother-in-law, and as a result, the mother-in-law's power over her daughter-in-law has decreased a great deal.
As women have become distant from their mothers-in-law's authority, both literally and figuratively, they now enjoy being freer in their relationship with their husbands. They also enjoy even more freedom over the raising of their children. The new freedom and independence in a girl's life has created a new development that one cannot ignore today regarding the relationship between the two women. To be more specific, the mother-in-law has waived the right to select a bride for her son; he can choose for himself. And so can the woman he wants to marry! She now has the right to choose her life partner. Therefore, the bride and the mother-in-law have switched seats in the selection process. Nowadays, the bride wants an educated and financially independent mother-in-law, believing that this type of mother-in-law would be more understanding, less controlling, and preoccupied with her own life and interests. This development, most likely, will permanently reshape family relations in these societies.
Today, Arab societies are witnessing fundamental changes of attitude which are influencing intra-family relations. These changes include the wife's relationship with her husband, the mother's relationship with her children, the children's relationship with their parents, and most importantly, the wife's relationship with her mother-in-law. The sometimes uneasy relationship between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law is not as shallow as many people think. They assume this is simply a matter of jealousy or a mother feeling that the new bride has come to "kidnap" her son. It is more profound than this. It is about imposing power and resisting it. It's to do with generational conflict and the desire of adults sometimes to impose their lifestyles, beliefs, and priorities on subsequent generations.