Middle Eastern Culture Essay


The Geography of the Middle East

The Middle East is a large and diverse geographical area located in southwest Asia and northeast Africa. It extends over 2,000 miles from the Black Sea in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, and about 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the mountains of Iran. The term “Middle East” came into common use in the early twentieth century, but remains loosely defined.

One term sometimes applied to part of this area is “Fertile Crescent,” which was coined by James Henry Breasted in 1914 to refer to the arc of fertile agricultural zones that formed the basis for early civilizations, in what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Scholars studying the ancient past usually use the term “Near East” for this area.

Mountains and deserts divide the Middle East into six zones that are both geographically distinct and have influenced the development and maintenance of cultural traditions through much of the history of the region.

In the first of these zones, the Nile River flows northward through the Sahara Desert from Khartoum in Sudan (where its two major tributaries join), through Egypt, and to the Mediterranean Sea. As a source of water, food, and fertile soil deposited in annual floods as well as a transportation route, it was the ecological basis for ancient Nubian and Egyptian civilization. In the southern part of this region, the broad alluvial plain is broken by six “cataracts”—areas in which the narrow river valley, strong current, islands, and rapids make navigation difficult. The rich mineral resources of the deserts around the Nile, particularly gold, have historically been important to economic development in this area.

East of the Nile Valley, across the Eastern Desert and the Sinai Peninsula, is the eastern Mediterranean coastal plain, which has historically been connected with mountains and river valleys that run parallel to it. Comprising the modern countries of Israel, Lebanon, and western Syria, as well as parts of Jordan and Turkey, this region is sometimes called the Levant (after the French term for “rising,” here referring to the rising sun). Located in the Mediterranean climatic zone with rich agricultural land and relatively abundant rainfall, and having easy access to land and sea routes, the Levant has always been a cultural crossroads and has frequently been conquered. Among the first areas to develop agriculture (as far back as 11,000 BCE), ancient cultures that developed in this region include Canaanite, Amorite, Israelite, and Phoenician.

The Levant is bordered on the north by the Taurus Mountains reaching up to 12,000 feet in elevation, which separate the Levant from the Anatolian plateau in modern Turkey. The Anatolian plateau is a relatively isolated but fertile agricultural zone, and the Taurus Mountains are rich in metals and minerals—they were known as the “silver mountain” in some ancient texts, but copper was even more abundantly available. The western coast of Turkey had closer contact with cultures of Greece and the Aegean Sea than with the rest of the Middle East through much of its early history. Ancient cultures in Anatolia included the Hittite empire and a Hurrian-speaking population.

Southeast of the Levant is the Arabian Peninsula with its extensive deserts, oases, and coastal regions along the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and Persian Gulf that were more often suited to permanent settlement. Today, this area includes the countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Distinctive ancient cultures of this area include the South Arabian kingdoms in what is now Yemen that traded incense to the Levant and communities in Oman that were rich in copper and hard stone. Arab culture first appears in the historical record after the introduction of the camel in about 1200 BCE, which allowed more extensive use of arid zones of Saudi Arabia, and Islam first developed in the oasis towns of Mecca and Medina before spreading over much of the Middle East by 700 CE.

East of the Levant and south of the Taurus Mountains is the area defined by the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that has sometimes been called Mesopotamia (the “land between the rivers”), now encompassing eastern Syria, Iraq, and a small area of southwestern Iran. In many ways, what we call Mesopotamian civilization is a series of diverse languages and cultures bound together by a common script and written tradition. Ancient languages in the area included Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Aramaic.

Mesopotamia is a particularly fertile agricultural zone with vast areas available for cultivation. Northern Mesopotamia receives enough rainfall to grow grain crops, while southern Mesopotamia receives virtually no rain, so agriculture there depended on extensive networks of irrigation canals. At the southern end of the Tigris-Euphrates course, a series of marshes has maintained a distinctive environment and culture for millennia. Apart from water and fertile soil (and later oil), Mesopotamia contains few natural resources, and has depended on trade with people in the mountainous regions to the north and east for stone, copper, and timber.

Mesopotamia is bordered on the east by the Zagros Mountains of western Iran and eastern Turkey (elevation up to 15,000 feet), whose highland valleys were home to Elamite and Persian civilizations as well as later powerful nomadic confederations including the Bakhtiari. The Zagros are a rich source of stone and timber.

The climate of the Middle East ranges from the warm summers and cold winters of highland Turkey and Iran, through hotter summers and cool winters of northern Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean coast, to the extreme temperatures of the Arabian desert. Most, but not all, of the region is arid.

As this outline suggests, geography plays a significant role in the formation and maintenance of cultures. The earliest civilizations with large population centers developed near abundant sources of water and agricultural land, rather than in areas of other valuable raw materials, like metals, semi-precious stones, building stone, or timber. Geography also provides a basis for distinctive attributes of regional cultures, like the importance of olive oil and wine in the cuisine of the eastern Mediterranean region (where grapes and olives can easily be cultivated), or the extensive use of incense in daily life, ritual practice, and in economic exchange in the cultures of south Arabia.

Scholars debate the extent to which geography shapes culture and the direction of historical change. Some see geography as destiny, while others see a more complex set of changing opportunities and constraints that geography poses through history.

 Framing the Issues

This is an essay I wrote a few years ago…


The Islamic religion is well known for its universal laws of abstinence before marriage, no toleration of alcohol, and other such distinctions. Despite these universal laws that Muslims hold to there are varying beliefs related to gender perspectives which change from one society to the next. The well known migration of Muslim families to Western societies such as Great Britain and the United States has played a key role in the differing attitudes Muslims have toward gender relations as they have become more integrated in cultures outside of the Middle East (Read, 2003). A strong sense of male dominated leadership is still prevalent within the majority of Muslim families throughout the world but this sense of gender equality is slowly disappearing as both the global economy and greater levels of tourism have begun to challenge those traditionally held Islamic views of gender (Naber, 1998).


In this paper I will discuss various issues related to gender perspectives within predominantly Islamic countries in the Middle East as well as among Muslim families in the United States of America.

According to Linda Brannon (2007) in the book Gender: Psychological Perspectives, Muslim countries have “longstanding traditions of unquestioned male authority over the family” (p. 254). However, countries such as Morocco and South Africa have slowly but steadily began to change political policies “giving women more rights in marriage” (Brannon, 2007, p. 254). In the article “Tracing our research trajectories: the study of gender in Muslim societies” published by JMEWS: Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, author Azza Basarudin (2008) cites one viewpoint that it has been tourism in Morocco and South Africa which has led to greater freedoms for women (para. 21). Thus, as women from non-Muslim cultures have visited and vacationed in those countries, their presence was a positive motivating factor in bringing a greater degree of gender equality for the Muslim women. Therefore, one of the central issues related to gender perspectives within Islamic cultures is the fact that gender views experience change as cultures collide.

Gender Stereotypes and Role Expectations

In the article “Family and Gender Among American Muslims: Issues Facing Middle Eastern Immigrants and Their Descendents” published by the journal Gender & Society, author Nadine Naber (1998) discusses Islamic society in Egypt and how the family is considered the very center of society and that children are the main focus of women within the culture (para. 5). The concept of women’s lives being mainly concerned with raising children is largely considered to be an old way of thinking in the United States as well as a way of repressing women’s rights. However, in many Islamic cultures such as Egypt, women do not necessarily think in terms of being repressed because they have to raise children but as a way of life. Naber (1998) writes “males and females occupy distinct roles within a patriarchal system based on age and gender. Women are caretakers, and men are providers”.

This view of men as sole providers and women as domestic homemakers has striking similarities to early U.S. expectations of gender roles and is most likely connected to the similarities between Judeo-Christian religious beliefs and Islam. It is well known that both religions find a commonality in the teachings of the Old Testament and the patriarch Abraham and that the Old Testament places a strong emphasis on men being the head of the household, whereas women occupy a more subservient role.

Professor Fawzia Afzal-Khan (1997), who was raised in a Muslim family in Pakistan, suggests that Americans on average associate the phrase, “Muslim woman” with the terms; “weak, subservient, passive, abused” (para. 8). This would concur with the major strides women in America have made over the past century via the women’s rights movement; cultures which do not give complete equality to women would generally be viewed negatively by Americans.

Gender Identity Development in Children

Of course the most significant source of gender identity development among children raised in Muslim families is the very structure of the household as was previously discussed, which places a heavy emphasis on male domination and female subservience. However, while some Islamic cultures still hold to those male dominated views, other Islamic cultures have experienced tremendous change;

In the United States, Islamic views of masculinity and femininity often depend on whether the Muslim family has migrated to the country or are second generation citizens. In the article “The sources of gender role attitudes among Christian and Muslim Arab-American women” published by The Journal Sociology of Religion, author Jen’nan Ghazal Read (2003) discusses the results of her extensive study on the subject of gender and Arab-American women. Read (2003) suggests that although Islamic women in America are considered to be more traditional and more repressed than non-Islamic female Americans, that among Islamic women born in America “the influence of Muslim affiliation on gender traditionalism disappears” (para. 27).Thus, young girls who are raised by Muslim parents born in the United States are more likely to experience the same type of upbringing as non-Muslim Americans.

Although Muslims in Indonesia do not practice the exact same Western ideals as second generation Muslim-Americans, they do however have many notable differences from their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters. In the article “The new Muslim romance: changing patterns of courtship and marriage among educated Japanese Youth” published by The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, author Nancy Smith-Hefner (2005) cites 1975 as a pivotal moment for Asian Muslims when Indonesia passed laws that encouraged women to participate in the workplace and that instituted “the principle that the consent of both parties to marriage must be obtained” (para. 2). No longer could women be forced into a marriage they wanted no part of.

Gender and Education

While Islamic women in many countries have experienced a greater freedom in regards to higher education, the education of men is often still valued over that of women.

Indonesia, which is nearly 90 % Muslim, has a more positive view of women and education than other Islamic countries, but when money is tight families tend to value the education of their son’s over their daughters (Smith-Hefner, 2005, para. 3).

In Iran more Muslim women are attending colleges and universities than ever before (Shavarini, 2005, para. 1).

In Saudia Arabia where the interaction of non-married Islamic men and women is still forbidden, the country has allowed an experimental educational program which enables female students to take classes via the Internet with a male professor (Del Castillo, 2003, para. 3).

Gender and Relationships/Marriage

An interesting progression in gender relations within Indonesia is the growing percentage of teenage girls who are permitted to have boyfriends, something that would have been severely frowned upon (if not condemned) in prior decades (Smith-Hefner, 2005, para. 37). Sexual promiscuity and extra-marital affairs is considered to be a major problem in Indonesia to which some proponents are advocating polygamy as a way of circumventing what is considered to be a major moral crisis (Smith-Hefner, 2005, para. 46).

Within Islamic culture, marriage is viewed as the joining of two families and therefore romantic relationships between single men and women are limited to other Muslims (Dhami & Sheikh, 2000, para. 7). So highly held is the concept of keeping a specific Islamic identity is the practice of consanguinity, Dhami and Sheikh (2000) write, “Among Pakistani Muslims, current estimates are that some 75% of couples are in a consanguineous relationship, and approximately 50% are married to first cousins” (para. 8).

Gender Identity: dress

While many Western ideas of gender perspectives have been adopted by Indonesians, one element of Indonesian culture that is actually moving away from Western ideals is that of dress. Many Indonesian women are choosing to wear more traditional forms of Islamic clothes (such as the veil) as opposed to Western trends (Smith-Hefner, 2005, para. 41).

Perhaps one of the most common misunderstandings Americans have of Muslims is related to the veil or hijab (modern headscarf), in the article “Clothes, Culture, and Context: female dress in Kuwait” published by the Journal Fashion Theory, author Marjorie Kelly (2010) explains that while Muslim women in Kuwait wear the hijab in public, “At private, same-sex, or family gatherings, women remove their abayas to reveal anything from shorts and jeans to formal gowns” (para. 5). Thus, at home Kuwait women often dress just as casually as American women, the main difference being that casual dress (such as jeans or shorts) is considered improper in public. It was scarcely less than a generation ago that the average American man would not even think of attending a ball game without wearing a tie so this author contends that those people overly critical of Islamic dress need to remember our society has only recently relaxed our own view of proper public dress codes.

Professor Afzal-Khan (1997) reviewed various literature from around the world and demonstrated the differences in how the subject of the veil, worn by Islamic women, is dealt with in various literature from around the world: she explains that some authors see the veil as a way of “empowering” Muslim women, whereas others view it as a form of restriction (para. 23). This would suggest that Islamic families which are deeply devoted to the traditions and religion of Islam do not view distinctions in dress (such as women having to wear a veil) as a way of demeaning the female gender but as a way in which women are able to worship their deity differently than men. This is not meant to discredit the piety of Muslims who view the veil as a form of restriction but to show that within those Islamic cultures which enforce the wearing of a veil, there are very real gender differences in how men and women worship.

In conclusion, gender perspectives in Muslim families are almost entirely dependent upon the particular country the Muslim family lives in. In the United States, second generation Muslim women live almost identical lives to non-Muslim American women, whereas Muslim women in parts of Asia and the Middle East are still viewed as subservient to men. Although abstinence before marriage, and sexual fidelity are one constant that is taught among Muslim families no matter the culture; the actual practice of these are often dependent upon socio-culture factors.


Afzal-Khan, F. (Spring 1997). Introducing a new course: Muslim women in the twentieth-century literature.  NWSA Journal, 9, n1. p.76(13). Retrieved September 15, 2010, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

Basarudin, A. (Spring 2008). Tracing our research trajectories: the study of gender in Muslim societies.  JMEWS: Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 4, 2. p.81(6). Retrieved August 22, 2010, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

Brannon, L., (2007). Gender: Psychological Perspectives (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Dhami, S. and Sheikh, A. (2000). The Muslim Family: predicament and promise. Western Journal of Medicine. 173(5): 352–356. Retrieved September 15, 2010 from, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071164/

Del Castillo, D. (March 28, 2003). Teaching Through an Electronic Veil.  The Chronicle of Higher Education, 49, 29. p.NA. Retrieved September 15, 2010, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

Kelly, M. (June 2010). Clothes, culture, and context: female dress in Kuwait.  Fashion Theory, 14, 2. p.215(22). Retrieved September 15, 2010, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

Naber, N C (Feb 1998). Family and Gender Among American Muslims: Issues Facing Middle Eastern Immigrants and Their Descendents.  Gender & Society, 12, n1. p.105(3). Retrieved August 22, 2010, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

Read, J. G. (Summer 2003). The sources of gender role attitudes among Christian and Muslim Arab-American women.  Sociology of Religion, 64, 2. p.207(16). Retrieved August 22, 2010, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

Shavarini, M K (July 2005). The Feminisation of Iranian Higher Education.  International Review of Education/Internationale Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft/Revue internationale l’éducation, 51, 4. p.329. Retrieved September 15, 2010, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

Smith-Hefner, N J (Oct 2005). The new Muslim romance: changing patterns of courtship and marriage among educated Japanese Youth.  Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 36, 3. p.441(19). Retrieved August 09, 2010, from Academic OneFile via Gale:

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Categories: Essays

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