Fending for themselves
Large pockets of frustrated teens remain
a ticking time bomb in Middle Eastern political landscapes
August 1, 2003
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
gave importance to the individual, gave birth to the
ideology of adolescence, and established concrete boundaries
childhood, adolescence, and youth. A close look at the
historiographies of countries in the region show that traditionally
like women, have been generally ignored in historical
accounts. The written history of the region has been the
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
system. This new period of transition expanded the time
between biological maturity and recognition of adulthood,
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."
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
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.
this individual religious status may not conform to the
person's civil or legal status in society. As these societies
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.
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,
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,
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
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,
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,
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.
universal level, there are laws, rules, and principles
enunciated by Islam as relevant to the life of all Muslim
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
and framework. Allah is both creator and the master of
the world (Rabb al-Aalamin). He is all-knowing
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
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
is quite different from Sunni Islam found in other Arab
countries. Or, Shia Islam (the minority sect), as understood
in Iran, is quite different from Shia Islam in Lebanon,
Turkey, and Syria.
For instance, as a universal rule, the
of alcohol is prohibited in Islam. However, the only
Muslim country that comes close to the definition of a dry
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
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."
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
their face and hands, Sunni women in India wear traditional
Indian dress (sari) where some parts of their body may
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
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
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
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
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
Arab countries is Sunni. There are a few other divisions
among these sects reflecting historical, theological,
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,
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.
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
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
not in question for Muslim believers. Unmarried males
and females are not allowed to have physical interaction
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
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
The extent of teens' conformity to parental
expectations depends on the family's degree of religiosity,
lifestyle, and social class. Whereas Sunni women usually
pray in the seclusion of home and do not participate
mosque, Shia women have always prayed in the mosque--however,
in a secluded area behind men, and never in front of
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
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
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
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
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
The exposure of Muslim youth to non-Islamic
culture and education, often derived from Western sources,
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
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
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
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
sinners, minor or major, through flogging or execution.
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
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
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
reached 30 percent, putting pressure on an economy whose
income from oil is now half of what it was in the early
Many countries in the region lack adequate
resources for ensuring a healthy future for their growing
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
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.
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
helpful to their economic status.
Many have left their
dying communities in rural areas and come to the cities
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
too many teens without access to schools, either due
economic conditions or to cultural and religious restrictions
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
to the negative effects of the isolation imposed on women.
major issue related to the safety and stability of the
environment within which Middle Eastern teens grow
political instability caused by government repression,
war, or occupation. The region has been and continues to
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
13 years old. The five-decades-old conflict between Israelis
and Palestinians has now become a "teenage war."
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
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
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,
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,
societies are still obsessed with issues of an older
generation whose desires for prosperous and democratic societies
unfulfilled. Two generations of Middle Easterners, who
have been struggling with modernity and its aftermath,
in search of a balance among native cultures,
modern technologies, economic development, and political
Whereas Western corporations continue to look
for new products to sell to this growing population, Middle
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
teenagers grows wide.
The population in all Middle Eastern countries
is young. Those under the age of 25 make up between 40 and
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
of these young people is often loosely articulated
Large pockets of frustrated teens remain
a ticking time bomb in Middle Eastern political landscapes.
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
groups and ideologies.
this page to your friends