Part 2 - Empowering the Men

Change: Back in 2011-2012 during my PhD research into cultural border crossings faced by young male Arab school-leavers, I interviewed two retired Arab gentlemen who had lived most of their lives in the emirate of Fujairah, witnessing the social changes associated with the discovery of oil and the wealth that it brought. One of them lived in a small mountain village on the road between Masafi and Fujairah City. He remembered when he and his wife were married, all the village men built a house for them, by themselves, with no foreign labour.

He also shared with me his memory of how the men collectively raised the village youth, especially the boys. This ‘village of fathers’ kept the boys in line, with any man on the spot occasionally administering a suitable and timely punishment to any boy who crossed the line such as showing disrespect or swearing but especially if they had failed to complete their daily assigned chores which may have included hewing falaj water canals from solid rock.

We no longer live in those relatively simple and hard years of the 1960s and 1970s, before electricity arrived at the village in 1978. The world has moved on, and so has this society. The annual pattern of life, centred on events in the Islamic calendar and the arrival of the two key seasons of the year, has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. At these times of celebration within the extended family and wider community, today I hear stories of professional men being unable to visit their grandparents, an important duty of the younger generation at any time, due to their pre-occupation with busy working lives.

In conversations with local Arab families in recent months, it appears that social and religious obligations are buckling from the relentless onslaught of a ‘cultural tsunami’ represented by a combination of two major waves of change - the ‘90%’, the foreign expatriates who came to the country to find work, sun, money, and an enviable lifestyle, and the cultural steamroller of globalization that followed, driven inexorably by the hegemonic triad of the English language, The Internet, and social media.

The world here has changed in the last two generations. And yet, are current social controls, both formal and informal, adapting to acknowledge this change? It’s not about losing an identity or changing one’s basic values and beliefs but instead accepting the reality of a seismic social shift.

Humans are hard-wired to adapt to change as it sits at the very core of our story of survival and domination of the planet. It has been and can be done successfully. The good news is that there is a small but growing cadre of young, well-educated and very capable professionals with a global outlook who, having been educated overseas, have returned to live a multi-cultural life, bonded to their religion and community.

It’s a global phenomenon: in so-called developed countries such as United Kingdom, Australia, and USA, boys are under-performing compared to the girls. It’s not just a feature of this region. Academically, girls everywhere are succeeding at the expense of the boys. But pick any social statistic - truancy, gang violence, school dropouts, suicide rates, drug-taking - and you will find the boys are leading the way.

Most boys need to go through these 'rites of passage' to prove they’re men. And of all the danger points during this passage, the worse of them is the car. For example, in the first 11 years I worked in a federal university in the UAE, we lost a student each year to a fatal car accident (after jointly creating a safety campaign with the Dubai Police and Emirates Driving Institute involving lectures, rolling and seat-belt simulators, and a driving assessment test for those with valid driver's licenses, we had no further deaths in my remaining five years).

Do I really have to join up the dots here to explain the connection between upbringing, education, and adult performance? As Ridge declares, “disengaged boys grow up to become disillusioned men”.

At the heart of this disengagement is a lack of motivation, the stripping away of that internal fire that gets most of us out of bed each day to engage with the messiness and confusion of modern life. And boys everywhere seem to feel this more than the girls who appear to cope better through stronger social connections and more attuned emotional intelligence.

The disengagement process begins at home.

Celia Lashlie intimately understands what happens in a typical Western family unit as young boys begin the transition to manhood during the dangerous years of adolescence. Boys who are raised in a household where parents try to make their child grow up in their image, similar to the standard child-rearing methodology of Arab parents in the region (Heard-Bey, 2004, p. 154), end up making fatal 30-second decisions that result in either their or other’s untimely deaths in a car crash or from a clumsy slip 10 stories up as they attempt to leap between two high-rises.

The reason Lashlie cites? Mothers are doing too much for their sons, nagging them to make their beds or tidy up their rooms, without allowing their sons to experience the connection between action and consequence. A good Emirati friend of mine told me she allowed her son to leave his dirty football kit on the floor until the day he missed a game because he didn’t have a clean kit. All his dirty clothes, not just the football kit, are now regularly placed in the clothes basket without her prompt.

It’s also a local phenomenon: what makes the boy-manhood transition so problematic in the region is the unique Arab cultural mindset and behaviours that sometimes exacerbate this issue. Sidani and Thornberry investigated the current Arab work ethic and found five main factors that undermined workers' productivity - unhelpful child-rearing practices and schooling, importing a foreign organizational structure and culture, fatalistic attitudes ascribed to Islam, a paucity of information and data, and the standard Arab leadership role model. While recognizing that individual differences with Arab culture and within different Arab sub-cultures exist and may disrupt an essentialist view, much of their research findings continue to resonate for me in my professional experiences and interactions.

The fact is neither girls nor boys are doing especially well in school in the Middle East. But boys in particular appear to study less and play more compared to the girls who are more often kept closer to home in respect of traditional values. In a study reported from Jordan, Rima Al-Sabbah, a 17-year-old student, said this: “If I study five hours a day, it would not be enough. If my brother studies one hour, it would be a miracle.”

In many societies, autonomy usually leads to motivation but in the Middle East, the freedom enjoyed by Arab boys’ (and facilitated by parents) creates a vacuum that handicaps rather than stimulates, allowing the boys to easily fill it with a myriad of distractions which begins the process of devaluing their experience of school. Many studies including mine report that Arab boys usually have difficult relationships with their male teachers - "they didn't care about me", one student told me when I asked about his secondary school experiences.

In her published work “From Trucial States to the United Arab Emirates” (2004), Frauke Heard-Bey reported that in raising young Arabs, both genders are encouraged to “behave like adults as soon and as well as possible”. But this may be difficult to achieve these days as many fathers remain absent from the family home. Almost 20% of my study cohort went home each night to a parentless home, occupied instead by a maid or elderly grandparent. In recent conversations with local Arabs, I heard a repetitive tale of absent fathers (usually away most nights meeting their friends for shisha or sleeping most of the weekend if they have to work away from the family home as many do in the Fujairah Emirate). At the very time that young boys need their fathers' hand to guide them across the dangerous bridge towards manhood, they are simply not present.

In terms of typical Arab values, a recent study found that self-respect, good health and hygiene, and a sense of responsibility were the values most highly ranked to teach to children with respect for elders and working to achieve a better life appearing just outside the top rankings. The bottom ranked values included creativity and use of imagination. In discussions with local Arabs in recent weeks, the ranking of these values were confirmed.

Finally, the tension between holding on to traditional Arab values while living in the modern world was highlighted at the 2015 Emirates Foundation Youth Summit, when a local Arab commentator giving the closing address in the final session reported the results of research that asked locals to declare their most and least valued aspect of being a National. The most valued aspect was simply being a National and the least valued was achievement through hard work. To a now hushed audience, he went on to ask: "how are we as National youth so proud to be Nationals, proud of our country, we love our leaders, but we don't want to work for it?"

Empowering the men: in the concluding chapter of my PhD thesis, I listed over 50 suggestions from the macro-societal to the classroom level. The paper on the Al Qasimi Foundation website lists nine. My focus in this article are mainly suggestions directed towards male Arab youth and their parents:

  1. The feminization of education, especially in primary schools, has been noted in the West and also here in the region. This simply means that more female teachers are now appearing in the classrooms and the absence of male role models has started to be felt. Ridge reported that 90% of teachers in the UAE, similar to Australia, are female. Female teachers also bring a feminine paradigm (ways of behaving and doing), a world-view that may hinder boys' sense of belonging in school. While recruitment campaigns to attract male teachers have been ongoing in the so-called developed world, the truth is that men are leaving teaching for more lucrative employment in other sectors. This problem does not appear in Finland where teachers receive professional levels of monetary compensation and status.
  2. Not all male school-leavers need to go to university - they often need life experience more than learning which, in the West, explains the popularity of the gap year. Given this, more opportunities should be explored in the region for non-academic life experiences where they can learn to push their personal boundaries, to explore and experiment. Interestingly, I interviewed three Emiratis last year after they had completed their National Service training and they reported that they felt stronger mentally and physically, had a new confidence built upon trust, loyalty, and personal accountability, and a real desire to actively contribute to the development of the country rather than simply better themselves.
  3. Parents need to be role models for their children. They need to stand up and be visible to their children every day, especially the fathers of teenage boys. If children see their parents wash the car, clean the house, do the washing, drive them to school, and read or tell them stories at bedtime, then these behaviours will be repeated when the children become parents. A local Arab told me that he and his wife made a conscious decision early on in their marriage not to have home-help and to spend as much time as possible with their children once they started to arrive. He gets up an hour earlier than he needs to drive his children to school, spending 20 minutes talking and laughing with them along the way. In the afternoon, he takes them to the swimming pool or the local park, if it is cool. Note: if you still want home-help, employ them only during the daytime when your children are at school.
  4. If you want your boys to make the correct decision that may save their life or that of others in the 30-seconds of madness that teenage boys often experience, then they need to learn decision-making and self-regulation from an early age and this is achieved through reinforcing the link between action/behaviours and consequences/results. In stepping back and allowing your boy to make a mistake (see early story about the football kit), then you have done your job as a parent.
  5. Don't try to befriend your teenage son. If he doesn't hate you and tells you so at least twice a week, then you are not doing your job by setting boundaries and enforcing consequences for transgressions.
  6. If you are not happy with the quality of education at your local school (and many parents in Dubai are not), then find a way to give feedback. Better organized and more effectively managed schools, less technocratic courses and more drama and music, properly trained and well-paid teachers, and guaranteed parity in learning experiences between girls and boys schools will go a long way to remediate boys' view of school.
  7. Is the region ready yet to accept full co-education? Only in government primary schools are the sexes taught together. Additionally many private schools and institutes of higher education in the region routinely teach men and women in the same classroom. In Tunisia and Lebanon—two of the only countries in the region in which boys and girls are educated together - co-education is the norm—and the hidden gender gap in math and science scores is small to nonexistent.
  8. I visited several Arab parents' homes after their sons were killed in car accidents. While humbled with their resilience, the pain was all too visible on their racked faces. If you want to minimize the chances of this happening to you as a parent, then take this advice on what you can do to support your teenage sons:
  • set the right example
  • give them key life skills especially self-regulation and mental toughness
  • identify and acknowledge their individual gifts and talents
  • help them find their passions
  • love them for who they are

As Arab boys begin the crossing the bridge into manhood, Mothers need to let them run ahead and Fathers need to be there on that crossing with them, at times holding their hands, at times letting go, and yes, even at times, carrying them.

Khalil Gibran in his poem "On Children" finishes with a plea to parents everywhere to be the stable bow from which the children as arrows are let fly:

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth...

Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable. 

Dr Peter J. Hatherley-Greene, Director of Learning, at Emarise

Emarise has a particular interest in Nationalisation efforts in the UAE, assisting both Emiratis and private sector companies and organisations to facilitate smoother recruitment and onboarding of Nationals that leads to improved long-term retention.

Backed by doctoral-level research which described the difficult cultural border crossings experienced by young Emiratis as they make the transition from high school to colleges and universities of higher education, Dr. Peter Hatherley-Greene, Emarise Principal and Director of Learning, has over 22 years' experience working with organizations in the GCC on cultural-change and specializes in supporting organizations to overcome the unique challenges and to capture the opportunities which Emiratization presents.

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