The Arab stay-at-home dad: no longer such an oddity

The Arab stay-at-home dad: no longer such an oddity
Blog: More Arab men are staying at home to look after the house and their children, challenging common assumptions about gender roles in the region.
3 min read
18 Jun, 2015
Would he help with the washing up? [Getty]

It is almost received wisdom that Arab societies are strongly patriarchal - admittedly to hugely varying degrees.

Arab nations are among the bottom ranking countries on gender-gap indexes. Arab women are at a huge disadvantage compared with their male peers, from personal status matters to employment, education and political representation.

In many cases gender inequity has been institutionalised and codified.

But while gender studies focusing on women in the Middle East is a strong and established field, and feminist and women's rights groups are very active across the region, gender roles within the household have not received a great deal of attention.

The gender gap

Arab men, it is safe to assume, do fewer chores than their female partners. Even in developed countries this burden is still disproportionately shouldered by women.

Arab men, it is safe to assume, do fewer chores than their female partners.

Another important aside here: the Arab middle and upper classes in several countries rely heavily on foreign domestic workers for childcare and housework, which outsources but reinforces gender and class inequality.

But things are changing as a result of the education and employment of women, and more Arab fathers now share family authority and responsibility - though arguably nowhere yet close to enough.

Beyond hard data, my personal experience as an Arab stay-at-home dad (SAHD) could be a good, though anecdotal, way to examine this.

But full disclosure first: had I not been married to a Westerner, I would have likely sleepwalked into dominant, asymmetrical paradigm of gendered roles in childcare and housework.

Arab SAHDs are not fictional entities. Perhaps the most high profile Arab SAHD is economics guru Mohamed El-Erian.  Yes, we are rare, but we suffer the same ignorant stigma everywhere.

Being a multimillionaire or, more commonly, a freelancer, helps ease this stigma.

Beyond this, it is unrealistic to expect all men to become SAHDs in the same way it is unreasonable to expect women to sacrifice everything and surrender to outdated gender roles. Yet it should be taken for granted that women and men should and can share the responsibilities of parenting and domestic care equally.

There are challenges, but most of them are of a practical nature.

Growing up in Lebanon, I and most of my male peers were not taught or expected to do housework, let alone look after children, cooking our food or washing our clothes.

Arabs around me are supportive of my role, but I often hear that childcare and housework "aren't a man's work".

Generally, the Arab media and society at large sees any "excessive" involvement by fathers in the household as a novelty or quirk.

Challenging the paradigm

On the surface, it might appear that the traditional paradigm suits men. But men who accept this paradigm are doing themselves a disservice.

Indeed, fathers who do not take on an active role with their children are less likely to bond with them. The quality and nature of their long-term relationship with their children suffer.

Dalya Cohen-Mor constructs an entire thesis on how the relationship between Arab fathers and their children, particularly boys, lies at the heart of many of the region's woes. Her argument is that Arab men are both the beneficiaries and victims of the patriarchal system, and the traditional code of masculinity warps both Arab men and society.

There is little doubt that an examination of men's roles would help in the context of the broader "masculinity crisis".

But in the end, it is almost common sense that closer involvement of Arab fathers in the household and with their children would be fairer, would produce healthier relationships, families and communities, and would be more rewarding - at the small price of doing more and leaving their comfort zone.