Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Power of Older Women and Men in Egyptian and Tunisian Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Power of Older Women and Men in Egyptian and Tunisian Families

Article excerpt

We adapt resource theory to compare involvement in family decisions by older women and men in the more patriarchal setting of Egypt and the more egalitarian setting of Tunisia. Data from the World Health Organization Collaborative Study on Social and Health Aspects of Aging are analyzed. In Egypt, women participate less often than men in most decisions, whereas participation is more gender equitable in Tunisia. Increasing age and declining health are negatively associated with participation in daily and life course decisions, particularly for Egyptian women. Although women participate less often than men in life course decisions in Egypt, involvement is more frequent among widows and those owning their homes. Future research should examine the relationship of resources, support, and the family power of older adults across normative contexts.

Key Words: aging, decision making, developing countries, family systems, gender.

Adults aged 60 years or more represent about 8% of populations in the developing world. By 2025, this percentage should reach close to current levels in the United States, where 16.2% of the population was age 60 or older in 2000 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). Women's increasing advantage in longevity in developing regions also means that a growing percentage of older adults are women (U.S. Census Bureau, International Database). Yet, despite disparities among women and men in their social, material, and human resources (Goldscheider, 1990; Meyer, 1996; Rudkin, 1993), studies comparing their experiences in later life are lacking. In particular, theory and research on the implications of macrosocial change for the family power of older women and men in developing regions has lagged behind demographic change (for exceptions, see Mason, 1992 and Thornton & Fricke, 1987). Literature on aging and family status in these regions has focused on the availability of kin, living arrangements, and the ability of families and social security systems to meet the needs of older individuals (e.g., Hermalin, 1993; Jiang, 1994). Studies of gender and family status have focused on inequality among spouses of reproductive age and the influence of older women on the well-being of younger women and children (e.g., McDonald, 1980; Presser & Sen, 2000). Few studies have compared the family power of older women and men, which, along with filial obligation, is associated with the care that children provide to parents in many settings (Logan & Spitze, 1995; Lye, 1996; Mason; Pyke, 1999). Here, we compare aspects of the family power of older women and men and test for variation in the effects of resources on older women's and men's family power in Egypt and Tunisia, two countries where norms about marriage, parenthood, and kinship have differed at least since their indepenence in the 1950s.


Komter (1989) distinguishes between three types of power in human relationships. Overt power is characterized by visible conflict, strategy, and attempts at change. Covert power is characterized by the subordination of one individual to another through fear or avoidance of conflict and displeasure. Invisible power is characterized by a process that achieves approval among subordinates of dominant values, beliefs, and opinions.

Classical resource theory posits that greater equality in the economic resources of wives and husbands will foster a more egalitarian distribution of these forms of power in marriage (Blood & Wolf, 1960). Rodman (1967, 1972) shows, however, that the effect on marital power of a husband's resources depends on the degree to which patriarchal versus egalitarian norms predominate in society. In highly patriarchal settings, a husband's resources are irrelevant to patterns of decision making in marriage because norms dictate that husbands control major decisions. In modified patriarchal societies, ascribed attributes still dictate individual worth, but egalitarian norms emerge in the upper classes so that a husband's economic resources are inversely related to his marital power. …

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