By Dr Numan Gharaibeh*
Empowering Arab civil societies is doomed to fail without empowering 50% of the Arab societies (girls and women). Concepts such as empowerment, dependence, independence, autonomy, self-reliance, etc are tricky. They lend themselves of over-simplification and over-generalization and other black and white and extreme interpretation. Most humans don’t deal well with vague, slippery, and unclearly defined, or clearly undefined concepts. There is no absolute dependence or absolute independence, only a mix of different proportions of the two. Social and moral judgment—not known for its sophistication—has it that independence is “good,” and dependence is “bad.” Or to put it in relative terms, independence is better than dependence. However, a close examination of an average day reveals the depth of the problem of separating dependence from independence. We no longer hunt and gather our food; we simply go to the supermarket to buy it. After all we are not interested in going back to becoming hunters and gatherers. We are dependent on the supermarket, the gas company, the electric company, the phone company, endless manufacturers and so on.
For the sake of economy, I am focusing I this essay on the negative aspects of dependency when Arab girls are indoctrinated with it from a very early age. Indoctrination is another word that lends itself to misuse and misunderstanding as there is a fine line—very fine—between education and indoctrination. To reduce vagueness and be more illustrative, I shall use indoctrination to refer to dogmatic teaching that does not induce free thinking or skepticism in the learner; rather it induces obedience to the teacher’s scripture in the broadest sense of the word “scripture.” My intended focus is on indoctrinating Arab girls with passivity, helplessness, “being at the mercy of,” or dependent on males, teaching them to have no say and disempowering them by painting a future that is plagued with unhealthy dependence, and teaching them acceptance of the tremendous power differential that exists between male and female.
It is unfortunate that even in the West (broadly defined), the female “role models” are presented in the children’s programs such as Cinderella, Snow White, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, Rapunzel, Thumbelina, The Nutcracker, and others is the that of the passive/dependent role. Girls are taught through these Disney characters that the heroine gets rescued by a handsome prince. All that she has to do is sit there and look pretty. Is this what we want to teach our daughters? Not only these heroines/role models are teaching passivity and dependence to young girls (west and east), but also they are sending them a clear message that they, independent of a male savior, are not worthy on their own, and that their biggest asset is their beauty. The female role model is frequently just a “model” and her prince is a male “model.”
Movies and cartoons (including the supposedly family-friendly Disney ones) may be excused as entertainment. However, children’s books teach reading while sending an almost a constant message about the female roles that girls learning to read absorb the role of the passive beauty waiting for the knight with the shining armor on his white horse to save her (and don’t forget the sexualized overtones). Where are the female role models whom Arab girls can model themselves after; an independent, self-sufficient, ambitious woman who depends on her wits and hard work more than on her beauty?
Another dimension to this male-dominant indoctrination is religious instruction. The three patriarchal religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam more or less share this male domineering indoctrination giving it the divine stamp of approval. These three monotheistic, Abrahamic, patriarchal religions all teach obedience and submission to the sill of the ultimate male, God himself. There is not a single doubt the God is a male. Not only that, but the talk of the lip service that this religion or that gives women equal rights and respect etc. is disingenuous. In Islam, just for example, the female gets from her parents half the inheritance that her brother is entitled to, the same thing in court, her testimony does not equal that of a man, she is to obey her husband, she is to accept being one of four wives etc.
The message is loud and clear, you, the Arab girl, is inferior to your brother. What does that do to self-esteem on the long, one can only imagine.
*Numan Gharaibeh is the proud father of two daughters. He was born in Jordan, graduated from Jordan University of Science and Technology, in Irbid Jordan. He was trained in psychiatry at New York Medical College and forensic psychiatry at Massachusetts Mental Health Center/Harvard Medical School in Boston. He is currently working for the public sector in Danbury, Connecticut.