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Fending for themselves
Large pockets of frustrated teens remain a ticking time bomb in Middle Eastern political landscapes

August 1, 2003
The Iranian

Introduction to Teen Life in the Middle East (Greenwood Press, 2003), edited by Ali Akbar Mahdi. . Dr Mahdi is a Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio Wesleyan University.

Teens as a category
Teen, as an age category, represents the ages from 13 to 19 and is also a socially constructed conceptual category. It is rooted in the Western world and English language. Historically, the use of the term in the English language dates to 1673. It became a popular term in the United States in the late 1940s. A more scientific term referring loosely to the same age group is adolescence--a Latin word meaning "to grow to adulthood."

Adolescence is a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, covering roughly ages 11 to 21. During these years adolescents experience drastic physical, psychological, and sexual changes generally defined as puberty. The experiences of this period for teens, as a social category, are often defined as the rites of passage--a time when new freedoms are offered to teens with lesser responsibilities and accountabilities than those expected from adults.

Sociologically, this lack of correspondence between freedoms and responsibilities is defined as status ambiguity. Both adults and teens remain unsure of how to relate to one another as each tries to get the other to respond to its needs and expectations. On the one hand, whereas teens are socialized to adults' values, norms, roles, and statuses, they are neither treated as fully responsible adults nor given powers associated with those roles and statuses. On the other hand, teens' expectations in conforming to social norms and roles remain oriented toward their own needs and desires.

As a result, both teens and adults remain unclear about the criteria by which teens' behaviors and performances are to be judged. As teen years begin, parents lose their influence to peers and the family loses its influence to society. As our societies become more risk oriented, multidirectional, and increasingly differentiated in roles and statuses, the identity of the young becomes subject to anxiety, uncertainty, and tension.

Though relevant and meaningful, teen is not a uniform category. Young people's life conditions and cultural experiences are by no means identical. As such, teen has had neither a proper equivalent in the languages spoken in Middle Eastern countries nor a conceptual autonomy in the theological, philosophical, and cultural domains in those societies. Terms used for teens in these languages are vague in age equivalency and are often in reference to pre-puberty, pre-youth, and pre-adult, each with different age referents.

Whereas in the English-speaking world the idea of teen is associated with restlessness and rebelliousness, in Middle Eastern cultures it connotes immaturity and imperfection. Childhood is often characterized by the absence of "reason" (aql). Just as the conceptual category of teenager in the Western world is a product of modernity and modernization of social life, in the Middle East it is the product of the region's exposure to Western culture in the past 150 years.

It was modernity that gave importance to the individual, gave birth to the ideology of adolescence, and established concrete boundaries between childhood, adolescence, and youth. A close look at the historiographies of countries in the region show that traditionally teens, like women, have been generally ignored in historical accounts. The written history of the region has been the story of male adults, especially notable ones.

Traditionally, most Middle Eastern societies had no transitional stage between childhood and adulthood. Puberty served as the dividing line between the two periods. Given the old structure of social life whereby children worked with parents, preparation for adulthood took place alongside them as well, either within the home or in parents' occupations.

With the modernization of society and the emergence of secular schools, children spent a good number of years in the school system. This new period of transition expanded the time between biological maturity and recognition of adulthood, exposing children to modern education, technology, Western lifestyles, and new ideas. The combined effects of the latter factors gave rise to adolescents' social expectations and the development of a new identity as "teenager."

Traditionally, the life cycle of an individual in the Middle Eastern cultures, based on the Islamic traditions, is divided into two stages: childhood and adulthood. Puberty, with its various rites of passages in different cultures in the region, marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. In Islam, girls are said to reach maturity (bolooq) at the age of 9 and boys at the age of 15. Once reaching puberty (baaleq), boys and girls become mokallaf, that is, they are responsible for performing all their religious duties as an adult.

Interestingly, this individual religious status may not conform to the person's civil or legal status in society. As these societies have become modernized and influenced by Western legal concepts, most define legal age as 18. For instance, in Iran a girl is eligible to marry at the age of 9 but cannot vote until she reaches 15. This same girl cannot obtain a driver's license until she reaches 18. If a boy commits a crime prior to the age of 15, he will be tried in a juvenile court. However, a female delinquent at the age of 11 will be tried as an adult, not a juvenile.

Teens and religion in the Middle East
Religion is one of the most influential forces shaping the lives of people in the Middle East. Except for Israel, whose official religion is Judaism, and Lebanon, whose Christian population makes up 30 percent of the population, all other countries of the Middle East are predominantly Muslim.

However, whether Muslim, Jew, Christian, Zoroastorian, or Bahai, teens in the Middle East are influenced and governed by religious rules and guidance, though in different forms and to different extents. To understand the effects of religion on teen life in the Middle East, it is important not to approach the issue from an "essentialist" perspective.

An essentialist perspective views a community as a bounded whole characterized by uniform rules, values, practices, and traits. For example, if Islam dictates something, then one expects to see all Muslims abiding by it. This perspective ignores the multiplicity of life experiences and interpretations characterizing lives of religious believers around the world. It also ignores the fact that religious behavior, like other types of behavior, is subject to accommodations, changes, mistakes, shortcomings, and outright failure.

The normative effects of Islam on teen behavior should be observed at two levels: universal and particular. At the universal level, there are laws, rules, and principles enunciated by Islam as relevant to the life of all Muslim youths.

At this level, Islam is an all-encompassing religion in which the entire individual's life is played out from cradle to grave. No part of individual behavior is outside of religious influences or can be conceived as outside the divine authority and framework. Allah is both creator and the master of the world (Rabb al-Aalamin). He is all-knowing and "encompasses everything in knowledge." The cosmos within which a Muslim lives, moves, and leads his or her life is created and guided by Allah. Of course, a Muslim has a choice to (1) follow Allah's guidance and lead a faithful life, or (2) ignore religious rules and lead an unfaithful life.

At the particular level, there are two other sets of norms, rules, and attitudes: national and local. At the national level, Islam in each Muslim country is perceived and implemented differently. Saudi Arabia follows a version of Islam known as Wahhabism. In many respects Wahhabi Islam, a form of Sunni Islam (the majority sect in Islamic countries; see below), is quite different from Sunni Islam found in other Arab countries. Or, Shia Islam (the minority sect), as understood and practiced in Iran, is quite different from Shia Islam in Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria.

For instance, as a universal rule, the consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Islam. However, the only Muslim country that comes close to the definition of a dry country, where alcohol is hard to find and harder to consume without impunity, is Saudi Arabia. Wealthy, Westernized, and secular Saudis who drink, do so outside the country. In most other Muslim countries, alcohol is available, either legally or illegally, and is consumed by teens in varying degrees.

These differences at the national level are augmented by differences at the local level, where the implementation of general principles is subject to local considerations. Although important, the universal principles do not always reflect what happens at the national or local levels, for general principles have to be interpreted and applied to particular circumstances in which many other factors play a role. Rural Muslims are often known to follow what social scientists have termed "folk religion."

Folk religion derives its beliefs more from superstition than from the injunctions in Islam. For instance, most Turkish Alawaits (a subsect of Shi'ism) believe in the evil eye (the idea that some people's gaze is capable of inflicting harm. Numerous objects are designed and worn by people in order to ward off evil) as a part of their religious belief, a matter totally unrelated to Islam. Whereas Shias in Iran believe that women should cover all their body except their face and hands, Sunni women in India wear traditional Indian dress (sari) where some parts of their body may remain exposed.

Still, it is important to understand the general framework laid down by Islam for all Muslims, including teenagers, as a basis for moral growth. To be a Muslim, a person has to believe in the fundamentals of Islam, which include acknowledgment of the oneness of Allah, Mohammed as the last prophet, revelations from Allah, and the Day of Judgment.

Commitment to these principles is manifested in following the five pillars of Islam: belief in God or Allah and acknowledging Mohammed as his prophet (Nabi), performing five daily prayers (Salaat), paying alms (Zakaat) for the poor and needy, making a pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) at least once in a lifetime, and fasting (Sawm) from sunrise to sunset in the month of Ramadan. All Muslims believe in these principles and are required to abide by them.

After the death of the Prophet Mohammed, the Muslim community managed its religious life by relying on Quranic injunctions, traditions set by the Prophet, and his statements (hadiths) regarding the course of action to be taken in specific situations. Muslims differed in their interpretations of these traditions and statements, resulting in different schools of religious laws.

Over the course of years, four schools of thought developed, each named after founding jurists: Shafi'i, Hanafi, Maleki, and Hanbali. The major schism among Muslims came about due to the question of succession to the Prophet. After Mohammed's death on 8 June 632, Sunnis believed in the tradition of electing the eldest and wisest man close to the Prophet as the leader of the community (Ummah). They also believed that the community leadership should remain in the Qurayshi clan. The first leader (khalif) was Abu Bakr, the second Omar, the third Othmaan, and the fourth Ali ibn Abu Taleb, the Prophet's son-in-law.

A group of Muslim followers known as Shias (i.e., party) believed that the leadership of the Islamic community should remain in the family of the Prophet, thus recognizing Ali as the rightful successor to the Prophet. From here on, Muslims divided into two major sects of Sunni and Shia. The majority of Iranians are Shia, although Shia minorities are found in almost all other Middle Eastern countries. The dominant sect in the Arab countries is Sunni. There are a few other divisions among these sects reflecting historical, theological, and doctrinal differences that emerged in later times.

Rules governing the lives of Muslims are drawn from the holy book, the Quran, the sayings of Prophet Mohammed, traditions established by the Prophet and his primary disciples, and the judgment of religious leaders (ulama or imams). Once regarded by religion as mature, teens must perform all their religious duties from prayers to codes of conduct. The five daily prayers are performed in the morning before the sunrise (fajr), at noon (zuhr), afternoon (asr), evening (maghreb), and night (ashaa).

Many Muslims perform noon and afternoon, as well as evening and night, simultaneously. Teens are also to observe the codes of honor and modesty in the Islamic community. These codes demand segregation of sexes and social spheres. Muslim girls are to end their interactions with non-relative male teens at around the age of 9 and begin to cover themselves with a veil.

The nature and type of the veil are subject to local adaptation, but its necessity is not in question for Muslim believers. Unmarried males and females are not allowed to have physical interaction with each other. Males and females are not allowed to enter into social spheres designed for the opposite sex.

In addition, Muslim males are expected, but not required, to participate in Friday prayer performed collectively in the mosque. Although daily prayers are required, not all Muslims are dutiful in this regard. Devoted Muslims observe their daily prayers and make sure their children do the same.

The extent of teens' conformity to parental expectations depends on the family's degree of religiosity, education, lifestyle, and social class. Whereas Sunni women usually pray in the seclusion of home and do not participate at the mosque, Shia women have always prayed in the mosque--however, in a secluded area behind men, and never in front of them.

Islam obligates parents to attend to their children by choosing an appropriate name for them, feeding and caring for them, teaching them about Allah and His religion, and preparing them for their adult roles in society. To perform these duties, parents are allowed to use corporal punishment in moderation.

Teens also have responsibilities toward their parents. Generally, their religious responsibilities are blended into the local cultures, reinforcing each other at all levels of social interaction within society. Here are some of those responsibilities. Islam expects teens to obey their parents' instructions, respect and care for them in health and illness, and remain subservient to the interest of their family.

The Quran states:

And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them but address them in terms of honor. And lower unto them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say, "My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young." (Chapter 17, verses 23–24)

The same respect and obedience should be offered to older siblings. As stated by a religious authority, "the right of the elder sibling over the younger sibling is like the right of the father over his child." Prophet Mohammed is also quoted as saying, "Be dutiful toward your mother and your father, and your sister and your brother, then those closest to you, followed by those next to closest to you."

Islam puts a great deal of emphasis on education and the correct ways of raising teens. This responsibility is assigned to parents--a responsibility that is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of challenges from modern educational systems.

The exposure of Muslim youth to non-Islamic culture and education, often derived from Western sources, has become a major source of irritation for Muslim parents and educators. In response to this threat, Muslims have begun producing educational materials based on Islamic principles and specific books explaining the duties of Muslim children and youth.

The opposition to the Pahlavi regime in Iran by the religious leaders, which resulted in the overthrow of that regime and its replacement with an Islamic theocracy (a government ruled by religious leaders and guided by religious laws) in the late 1970s, was based on the fear that the modern education established by the Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979) had contaminated Iranian youth with decadent Western values.

Across the Middle East, religiously conservative parents view the exposure to Western culture as detrimental to Muslim education. The rising wave of fundamentalism in the region has resulted in the establishment of educational schools based on Islamic principles.

In Turkey, the development of these schools became a major threat to the secularization program followed by the government and resulted in efforts to eradicate these schools. The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996 resulted in the expansion of the Wahhabi version of Islam in that country.

Wahhabi Islam, as explained in the chapter on Saudi Arabia, is the official form of Islam adopted in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism rejects Western culture, mingling of the sexes, interacting closely with non-Muslims, and tolerance of Muslims of other sects in Islam. It emphasizes outward behavior and is in favor of public punishment of sinners, minor or major, through flogging or execution.

The Taliban established an Islamic regime in Afghanistan and also harbored Osama bin Laden, a Saudi dissident who has championed a crusade against foreigners and infidels in the region--a crusade that took his fight and soldiers all the way to the United States and inflicted the most horrific act of terrorism in history on September 11, 2001.

Teens in the Middle East
Sociologically, there are four areas of concern necessary for the healthy growth of teens: education, social services, family support, and health care. Looking at the statistics provided by the United Nations, one can easily see that no single country in the Middle East can hope for full satisfaction of these concerns. Even in Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world, the high birthrate has resulted in a huge population below the age of 15, and unemployment has reached 30 percent, putting pressure on an economy whose income from oil is now half of what it was in the early 1980s.

Many countries in the region lack adequate resources for ensuring a healthy future for their growing population of teens. There are alarming reports regarding the economic hardships experienced by teenagers in the region. Teens from poor families are forced to work on the streets and interact with the adult world without much of a protective shield against economic exploitation, sexual abuse, and exposure to crime and violence.

There are numerous variables contributing to the increase in the ranks of teenagers in search of jobs in the cities: economic decline and increasing unemployment, higher rates of population growth, uncontrolled rural exodus, frequent earthquakes in countries in the region, and displacements due to war in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Afghanistan.

Some of these teens are drug addicts, some are homeless living in abandoned vehicles and buildings, and some are victims of traffickers who rent them for economic exploitation or kidnap them from rural areas and transfer them to cities to work as beggars or maids. Most work as itinerant merchants, wash car windshields, beg in the streets, or offer to shine the shoes of passersby. Most are physically, psychologically, and sexually abused. For them, life itself is an abuse.

Globalization has had many positive aspects and has brought many countries, especially the Western ones, huge material and social comforts. Unfortunately, for many teens in the Middle East the fruits of globalization are not shared equally, and many young people in these countries do not find globalization helpful to their economic status.

Many have left their dying communities in rural areas and come to the cities to find themselves in the traps of poverty and war. Although there is no going back for these teens, there is little with which they can move forward. In parts of the region, there are too many teens without access to schools, either due to economic conditions or to cultural and religious restrictions imposed on female children.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime banned women from the public arena and closed schools for girls. In 1996, fully 90 percent of Afghani girls and nearly two-thirds of boys were left out of school. The life of female teenagers left at home, and at the mercy of adults whose major concerns are chastity and a good future husband, leaves very little for these teens to look forward to. The increasing rate of suicide and runaways among young females in Iran is a testimony to the negative effects of the isolation imposed on women.

A major issue related to the safety and stability of the environment within which Middle Eastern teens grow is the political instability caused by government repression, war, or occupation. The region has been and continues to be gripped by war: civil, national, and international. In the past two decades, thousands of teens have lost their lives, become permanently disabled, or been injured in armed conflicts between Iran and Iraq, Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and the Lebanese, Afghanis and Soviets, and various civil wars in the region.

In Afghanistan, the proportion of teen soldiers has "risen in recent years from roughly 30 to at least 45 per cent." The latest war in that country is being fought by many young Afghanis as young as 13 years old. The five-decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has now become a "teenage war."

Teens make up a large segment of refugees from these conflicts, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, or Kurdistan. Economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations for Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 have resulted in massive malnourishment among teens in that country and have wiped out the possibility of a meaningful future for them.

While globalization increases pressure on older traditions and challenges traditional identities, new technologies and opportunities provide newer forms of identities based on individual choice and accountability. More and more young people view their own decisions as a choice rather than an unquestionable constraint imposed by culture, society, and traditions.

As demonstrated in various surveys of Iranian youth, more and more teenagers seek immediate gratification by fending for themselves and challenging pressures from traditional norms. As these societies move away from traditional structures toward modern institutions in polity, economy, and education, the life and experiences of their youth reflect the cultural anxieties associated with this transition.

Whereas Western culture is obsessed with youth, marketing products to a growing population of teenagers, Middle Eastern societies are still obsessed with issues of an older generation whose desires for prosperous and democratic societies remain unfulfilled. Two generations of Middle Easterners, who have been struggling with modernity and its aftermath, are still in search of a balance among native cultures, modern technologies, economic development, and political democracy.

Whereas Western corporations continue to look for new products to sell to this growing population, Middle Eastern leaders are trying hard to find ways to limit teens' access to Western products deemed incompatible with the local culture or religious values. Middle Eastern parents are wary of popular culture from the West--a culture selling violence and sex packaged in movies, music, and clothing. As these cultures clash, the gulf between Middle Eastern parents and their teenagers grows wide.

The population in all Middle Eastern countries is young. Those under the age of 25 make up between 40 and 63 percent of the population in different countries of the region. A cursory look at images of crowds of protesters, soldiers, and rebels involved in various forms of fighting in these countries shows a very angry young population. The anger of these young people is often loosely articulated and vaguely understood.

Large pockets of frustrated teens remain a ticking time bomb in Middle Eastern political landscapes. They are young, inexperienced, impatient, and desirous. If their expectations and needs are not met, they will be a major source of political instability and unrest in decades to come. These frustrations are breeding grounds for militancy and attraction to extremist groups and ideologies.

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By Ali Akbar Mahdi




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Teen Life in the Middle East
Edited by Ali Akbar Mahdi

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