Aunt and Mother in Law: Two Concepts Under the Same Term




Growing up in Colombia, older women used to joke about the Spanish word “nuera” which means daughter in law. Nuera comes from the latin “nurus” which literally means the partner to my son.  But the joke was from the perspective of female chauvinism that embraces Latino cultures in believing there were no women good enough for a mother’s son. So, they used to replace the first syllable (nu) for ‘no’ in addition to (era) which means ‘was,’ to conclude that the soon to be daughter in law ‘noera’ (wasn’t) the right woman for a mother’s son.


I truly believed it was the real etymology of the word until I fell in love with linguistics and understood that words carried concepts which determined and justified cultures. I believe now that the sole joke is distasteful and aggravating to women’s role in society as spouses and partners.

This morning, while I was in the culture portion of my Arabic class, I learned that in Arabic, an uncle on my dad’s side has a translation different than my uncle on my mom’s side. So, my dad’s brother is an ammu (عم) while my mom’s brother is a khal (خال). Their wives are the spouse of my ammu and the spouse of my khal.


In this part of the world, less so in the capital city or among well educated people, the first choice for a woman’s husband was her cousin on her dad’s side. Therefore, women were offered as spouses for their father’s nephew primarily because keeping the tribes together was a matter of survival. If there were two brothers that wanted the female cousin, for some families, the woman would decide which one she wanted (of the two). However, for other families, the woman would marry the oldest male cousin or the cousin of the oldest brother of her dad, or the one in the best financial situation. Therefore, the word mother-in-law is the same as the wife of my uncle, because it was a tradition to marry the cousin on the dad’s side, and the wife of the uncle became mother in law.


Even today, there is a word for mother-in-law (um fi alqanun) but no one uses it. Even if a woman does not marry her cousin on her dad’s side, the word used to refer to his mother is the wife of my uncle (although in some cases there is no consanguineous relation).


The survival and preservation of the tribes was and still is very important in Lebanon because Civil Law does not exist, therefore, family law proceedings are based on the religion and the sect or denomination of the husband.


Here, there is no civil marriages in the sense that they are not performed within the country, and a religious marriage is always enforced. However, civil marriages that occur in other countries can be registered in Lebanon if the man of the relationship belongs to a sect in Lebanon.


Another hint about Lebanese law and traditions is that, as the country is divided into Christians (with multiple denominations and sects) and muslims (mostly sunnis and shiias), the government and the parliament has representation by the citizens depending in a manner reflecting the different religions of the people of Lebanon. So, the laws are made based on what is convenient to the religious groups and their traditions. In other words, marrying people of other religions was a matter of gaining or loosing members of their tribe and, therefore, political power.

In regards to citizenship, women do not pass on the Lebanese nationality and multiple civil rights movements are actively trying to fix this law. The man is the only one who can pass on the nationality. In that sense, if a Lebanese woman gets married with a foreign man, he and their children will NOT be allowed to become Lebanese citizens.


Instead, if a man gets married to a foreign woman, she can become Lebanese, and indeed their children.

Lastly, a woman who gets married with a man of a different tribe and religioun will drop her own tribe and religion and the laws governing her marriage will be those of the man she marries. Even her voting site will change to her husband’s vote site. If divorce occurs, she must submit to the laws of the tribe of the man she married and this includes laws governing alimony, child support, and custody.


I will be in the moon (thinking way too much on my next trip) or in my dorm buried in my Arabic books.



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