Family, Religion, and Work among Arab American Women

By Read, Jen'nan Ghazal | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Family, Religion, and Work among Arab American Women


Read, Jen'nan Ghazal, Journal of Marriage and Family


Using data from a national survey of 501 Arab American women, this study examines the extent to which family behavior mediates the influence of religion on women's labor force activity. Prior research on families has largely overlooked the role of religion in influencing women's labor force decisions, particularly at different stages of the life cycle. The analysis begins to address this gap by examining whether religious affiliation and religiosity have direct relationships to women's work behaviors, or whether they primarily operate through family behaviors at different phases of the life course. The results show that religiosity exerts a negative influence on women's labor force participation, but only when children are present in the home. Among women with no children, religiosity has no effect on employment.

Key Words: Arab American, employment, family, religion, women, work.

Religious influences on family and women's and men's roles are at the center of numerous debates about the role of religion in contemporary American life (Bartkowski, 2001; Gallagher, 2003; Sherkat, 2000). The accepted wisdom is that the tenets of major religious traditions restrict women's achievements in the public sphere by prioritizing their obligations to home and family (for a review, see Lehrer, 1995). Recent studies on Judeo-Christian groups are beginning to challenge this view, finding that the relationships between family, religion, and women's economic activity are more complicated than previously believed (Gallagher; Heaton & Cornwall, 1989; Lehrer, 1995, 1999; Sherkat). To a lesser but growing extent, research is also contesting homogeneous images of Muslim women that depict them as universally oppressed by a patriarchal religious culture (Read, 2002; Read & Bartkowski, 2000).

This article contributes to this line of inquiry by examining the effects of religious affiliation, religiosity, and family on women's employment, using Arab Americans as a case study. Arab Americans are of interest because this group comprises both Christians and Muslims, which offers a unique opportunity to examine interreligious, intraethnic differences in women's behaviors. The analysis uses survey data from a national sample of 501 Arab American women to examine the extent to which religion inhibits women's labor force participation, and degree to which family commitments mediate the relationships between religion and work.

DETERMINANTS OF WOMEN'S EMPLOYMENT

Studies that examine religious influences on women's labor force participation have raised interesting questions about the mediating effects of family obligations on women's economic achievements (Hartman & Hartman, 1996; Heaton & Cornwall, 1989; Lehrer, 1995; Sherkat, 2000). In particular, these studies find that religious constraints on women's employment operate through their family roles. All major monotheistic religious traditions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) promote women's familial duties over their public sphere activity, and women who are married (Hertel, 1988) or who have young children present in the home (Hartman & Hartman) are less likely to work than those without these family ties. This is true for both Christian and Jewish denominations, although there are certainly denominational differences in how strictly these doctrines are interpreted.

Arab Americans present an interesting theoretical case for examining the relationships between family, religion, and women's labor force participation for two reasons. First, they are an ethnic group comprising both Muslims and Christians, which offers a rare opportunity to examine intraethnic, interreligious differences in women's behaviors. As defined by the Census Bureau, Arab Americans trace their ancestry to 17 Arabic-speaking countries in North Africa and western Asia. They emigrated in two distinct waves from the Middle East over the past century, the first being predominantly Christians from Greater Syria, which includes modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Israel, and the latter comprising mainly Muslims (Naff, 1994). …

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