What is Culture and how do we define Cultural Identity?

By: Khalid Iqbal Founder Rahmaa Institute

Cambridge English Dictionary states that culture is, “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.”
Scholars define culture as “”that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society at a particular time.”

Culture play a significant role in the life of an individual. What a person view and observe from the childhood in engrained into him or her as normal. A growing young person may like or dislike certain actions but still it remains in their mind as things that are acceptable in society. For example in some cultures a certain group of people or sect or sex are considered a sub servient to the other. The battle of the sexes is centuries old issue that still continue.
Culture though is not just about the things we can observe or see like the food or dress or the type of living, but may also be things that are invisible, like behavior, self-worth, power, values etc. Our culture often shape our outlook and reflected in our behavior often without us even noticing unless someone point it out
From a young age, information we absorb from the world around us influences our:

• Belief
• Self-Worth
• Value system
• Behavior
• What is right and wrong (Not halal and haram)
• Aspirations
• Interests
• Life and death
• Needs (family, wealth, etc.)
• Parenting
• Relationship
• Responsibilities and obligations

Cross cultural relationship
Allah says in the Quran Surah Juma’a 62:2
هُوَ الَّذِي بَعَثَ فِي الْأُمِّيِّينَ رَسُولًا مِنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِهِ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَإِنْ كَانُوا مِنْ قَبْلُ لَفِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ

[Juma’a 62:2] It is He Who has sent amongst the Unlettered a messenger from among themselves, to rehearse to them His Signs, to sanctify them, and to instruct them in Scripture and Wisdom,- although they had been, before, in manifest error;-

There is so much wisdom in this Ayat when Allah says He sent a messenger from among themselves. If as an outside would try to impose their belief system on to others they will have tremendous resistance and difficulty.

Allah SWT also says in Surah Al-Hujrat 49:13 the benefit and the purpose of diversity
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ وَأُنْثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
[Al-Hujrat 49:13] O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

In the light of these Ayats from the Quran let us look at some of challenges faced by people in cross cultural relationships and our recommendations. (Please note that the list is long and what are mentioned below are only a few issues):

No Issues and challenges of cross cultural difference Recommendations
1. Religious differences – The couple should understand and clarify before entering into a marital relationship in detail especially the effect on raising the children
2. Disagreement on routine things like responsibilities, chore distribution, food, hygiene, etc. – One must look at how best to adopt to the challenges of daily life as they will keep on popping. One must learn to accommodate and let go to create a win/win family environment
3. Feeling of loss of self-identity – This is serious one and can be addressed through empowerment by your spouse. This if not addressed may lead to either severe conflict or low self-esteem and in some case depression.
4. Family relationship – In-laws are major issue in the family dysfunctionality. The trend is changing from a multifamily dwelling to single family. We suggest that these and other related issues must be discussed and settled prior to marriage
5. Expectations – Expectations not met often lead to disappointment. Many things considered as norm may not be in a different culture. Expectations and behavior are also changing with the time and advancement of technology. We discuss this in detail in our premarital course or when we do post marital family counseling
6. Money – In most families both husband and wife work to make ends meet in today’s economy. This could be major stumbling block in the martial relationship. Finance is another major issue in family dysfunctionality and must be discussed at length prior to marriage
7. Incompatible beliefs – This becomes an issue on religious holidays and rituals, especially in the issue of raising children. One thing cropping up recently is the influence of no belief or atheism. People might love each other for many reasons, but conflict arise if they can’t agree on fundamental values.
8. Parenting – Parenting styles may differ based on how the individual in the couple were raised themselves or what they witnessed. Parenting styles is also changing so quickly based on the changes in technology or fashion.
9 Language – It is normal to switch to your language of origin without thinking that your spouse may not be understanding. It may be hard to understand the jokes or phrases which are from one culture. This sometimes may lead to frustration and alienation
10 Loss of identity – When your identity is in questions serious questions may arise like Who am I? Where do I belong? Do I fit? What is this change doing to me? I am concerned about my children? Do I have a responsibility to hold on to my cultural heritage?

One must realize the fact that the ideologies we grow up with never really leave us. Even if you reach a point in life where you lose or change your values and faith, those core principals you grew up with can leave their mark. Initially you may change because of love and keeping harmony however some time in life the resentment start to in fest in the relationship.

Guilt is a big part of letting some or all of your beliefs and practices go, and this guilt can quickly lead to one partner resenting the other for leading them away from their culture. This is something that we recommend must be dealt with through a counselor

There is no single formula for a happy, long-term cross cultural relationship. Relationships are always different and what works for one couple might not for another. Whatever challenges you face on your journey, whatever complications arise from the differences between you, it is important to always remember that there was a reason you started your relationship in the first place. It might become tainted, marred, or forgotten – but that reason will never really disappear.
Tips and Recommendations – It is your decision so own it:
1. Understand and respect
Allah mentioned the reasons for creating the humanity in different tribes and culture to get to know each other. So make effort to learn and accept what other culture has to offer. It may not be easy for you to adopt your spouse’s way of life and neither should you expect your spouse to settle seamlessly into your way of life. You should see the relationship as a merging of cultures rather than that person adopting yours or you adopting theirs. Respect the differences, learn about them and look at where you might have to compromise to help them feel happy. Relationships should always be about finding a comfortable balance. If one of you isn’t making enough effort, then cracks will start to form.
2. Make an effort to learn about each other’s cultures
Do whatever is necessary to learn about each other culture through means available to both.
3. Accommodate
It may not be smooth sailing all the way in life so accommodate where possible.

4. Understand that there will be uncompromising differences

The only way to deal with them is through dialogue at a time, place and your mood that will bring in some resolution to accommodate, compromise or agree to disagree. Either way you can come up with a possible solution that is acceptable to both to avoid continuous resentment leading to argument.

Having a different perspective on life is a valuable thing, there is so much strength in diversity. See your differences as a good thing that enhances your relationship, rather than a stumbling block. There is so much to learn in life, why not start at home and learn from each other.

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