x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Want what's best for your girl? Sometimes she must choose

A heavy-handed Arabic style of parenting can push girls into open rebellion.

Anyone born to Arab parents is likely to hear the word "a'aib" often in childhood. A'aib means "shameful" and it is often used to describe culturally unacceptable behaviour.

Salma, a teenage Emirati girl, belonged to a strict family where she was served a daily dose of a'aib. In her household the word was sometimes used mindlessly.

The 19-year-old student was forced to major in business, because her family thought study in this field would bring her good pay after graduation. She couldn't object to the choice, because that would be a'aib.

She was deprived of any opportunity to hang out with her friends on weekends, because in her family girls did not go out with their female friends.

She frequently saw her older brother spending plenty of time with his friends. But when she tried reasoning with her parents about the different rules for him and for her, their response was simply "he is a man". She was expected to obey unconditionally; no other choice was given.

Like many parents in the UAE, Salma's mother and father did not often accept criticism from their children, because it is a'aib to question parents and they cannot be wrong.

Hearing this word a'aib so often eventually led Salma to rebellion.

This is not only her story, but also the story of many Emirati girls.

When I was in university I came across a student whose parents did not allow her to open a Facebook account, because they assumed she would use it to communicate with the opposite gender, thus damaging her family's reputation.

This type of control did not have a huge negative effect on this girl, but her case is only one example from among many.

A lot of girls choose to break away from suffocating cultural rules, and decide to live a sort of double life so as to be accepted by friends and in the wider society.

Some of the traditional rules governing young Emiratis do not make sense to young people. And they do not have the privilege of questioning these limits, because that would seem like disobedience.

At times, these cultural rules appear to contradict Islamic teachings, leaving young people in a confused state of mind. Islam is against blind following and encourages people to ask questions, yet it does seem that many are blindly following rules. Faith is a matter of the heart and of conviction, and cannot be imposed by force.

Our religion clearly tells us what is permissible and what is prohibited. So where does the word a'aib fit in, I wonder. Nowhere does the religion mention that it is a'aib to entertain yourself within the limits set by Islam. Are we following culture, which is bound to change, or religion, which remains intact?

Many parents in the UAE require absolute obedience, and many have no clear explanation with which to reply when their children ask why this or that rule exists. These parents are only passing on what they were taught. If young people rebel against being trapped within cultural limitations, withdrawal of affection is sometimes used as a form of punishment.

Some parents are more concerned that their children live up to their adult standards and expectations than with their children's freedom of expression and thought. This parenting style may have effects on children's existential and psychological behaviours, according to the psychologist Diana Baumrind's ground-breaking study of the subject in 1960.

The problem with many families is that they do not always make it clear that their intentions are good, and in the best interests of their children.

Without doubt, Salma's parents were well-intentioned people who wanted what's best for their daughter. But unfortunately, their over-control pushed her into rebellion.

What did many families achieve by locking girls in the traditional shells? What is so a'aib about visiting female friends on the weekend?

 

aalhameli@thenational.ae

On Twitter: Asmaa_AlHameli