One of the things I have recognised here in Luxor is the way that children are raised, in both poorer families and better off families.
Having been raised in a culture where Catholic, Irish, values are imposed on children and where God is seen as the ultimate authority, being here in Islamic Egypt feels surprisingly familiar! Father was the law-maker and the punisher, the one who you had to take seriously. Mother, on the other hand, was more manageable. It was easy to bamboozle her, to manipulate her or to lie without feeling too much fear. The fear came with her statement “Wait until your father comes home”. Then you knew you were in trouble and had overstepped the mark, the boundary line drawn by your parents.
My own father had been brought up in a very controlling family and he had attended a Christian Brothers Boarding school in Limerick where abuse was rife. During the 70’s, when I was a teenager living in Dublin with my father, he replayed his own history with me. Boundaries were very strict and abusive and it always felt to me like I was in a boarding school too. My mother, who lived separately to us, gave me very few boundaries; so while raising my own children in the UK in the 90’s I was very confused and vacillated between being too strict or too lenient. I found it very difficult to find the right balance with discipline.
When I was training to be an abuse counsellor I did many parenting courses in an attempt to find this balance. But I had started too late, as my girls were now teenagers and their patterns were already set. However, living now in Egypt, I recognise how important setting boundaries early in the child’s life is.
Children have few, if any, healthy boundaries. There are invisible boundaries, which seem to exist in the parents mind but which are unknown to the child… until they are overstepped. When they are overstepped the child is physically beaten and is subsequently left in a permanent state of fear, still unsure of where the boundaries lie. Nothing is explained to them about what boundaries were overstepped or why they are being punished.
For boys this is even more so. Girls are usually being trained from a very early age to be wives and mothers, so they do much of the Mother’s work, fetching and carrying, going on errands or making tea all day. They help to look after the younger children and all day long they are called by one person or another to do this or that! The adults rely on the girls to do the things they don’t want to do. The boys also do errands but not as much as the girls, because boys are going to be husbands, telling their wives what to do!
Boys flounder more as their roles as young males is not as clearly defined as that of young girls. With the introduction of the internet, mobile phones and satellite television young boys spend most of their free-time using these technologies in the pursuit of excitement and girls! Their adrenalin levels are always raised, but they have no healthy outlets for all of this wild energy. Boys as young as ten years old are left to amuse themselves, sometimes going to bed at four in the morning because no-one tells them to go to bed! They float around in their young lives and try to find strategies for survival, usually though avoidance and lying. They have no direction and no purpose. Many are illiterate because even the teachers don’t care and their undirected energy spills over into violence and uncontrolled anger.
The effects of this way of life last into adulthood and many men end up living lives where they do not recognise boundaries, especially with women. Men continue their childhood survival strategies, lying when they think they are going to get into trouble and avoiding, by manipulation, denial and not taking responsibility for their actions. They also act out their childhood anger with their wives, who act it out with their children.
The result is also addiction, to alcohol, marijuana or sex. The men float around looking for direction, and work, from their government and local officials. They feel powerless and direction-less because they get nothing from these father figures. Men are not taught to be independent and self reliant. They are taught to be completely dependent, and scared of authority.
This cycle continues down through the generations. In many ways it is no different to the cycles of abuse experienced in the West except that there is no education or help for these dysfunctional family relationships here in Upper Egypt. These dynamics are the norm. Without free therapeutic help and parenting education these cycles will continue. In Cairo there are more and more centres being set up offering help and advice to people but very little here in Upper Egypt.
It will take years to change these dynamics but it has to start somewhere. Making sure that education is improved would be a good beginning…