The Generation Gap in the Arab World

If anyone remembers the Generation Gap of the 1960’s in the United States, a similar phenomenon is now sweeping the Middle East and Arab World.

Here is an example:

Traditionally in Middle Eastern culture, women do not “date.”  A man who sees a woman he likes in the street that he is attracted to is supposed to go and propose marriage to her family before he is allowed to get to know her.  (This is one of the reasons why the incidence of cousin marriage remains relatively high–people ARE aware of birth defects caused by it; however, men are often afraid to take a chance on marrying a woman they don’t know at all.  So they settle for marrying their first cousin, whom they have been allowed to get to know in a family setting.)

Now, almost all young girls are in school with boys and talking to boys, even if they are in rural schools.

In the cities, many girls in schools are having boyfriends (which doesn’t mean they are actually dating) as in classroom romances between children.  Even if a girl doesn’t have a boyfriend, all of them have boys they “like” in the class.  Boys also have the girls they “like.”  All this starts in early elementary school.  By the time kids get into junior high and high school, kids in the richer high schools are actually dating.  In many cases, the mothers know their daughters have boyfriends, but they keep it a secret from the fathers (who tend to “go ballistic”). I n a few cases, the fathers know and don’t care, but this is very rare.

So, even girls in elementary school are having boyfriends even if they are not dating at that age.  Due to modern television programs from the West, many middle-school girls now ask their parents when they can start “dating.”  The most common answer which girls I know have recently been getting  from their parents is, “When you finish the university, and are ready to get married, then it would be OK to go out on a few dates, such as to a restaurant or a movie.”

This seems like a quite liberal idea to the parents and especially fathers who are answering in this way, as it is so much further advanced over what their generation was allowed to do (men currently in their 40’s).  Yet, to the children and teenagers, this idea seems so far behind the times as to be laughable.

So is the Generation Gap a real phenomenon?  Yes, I think it is.  It happened in America in a time of great social change; it is happening in the Middle East in a time a great social change.  In the West, the changes were driven by the pill;  and by sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

In the Middle East, the change is driven by education, particularly  of girls.  This is the first generation where girls are being educated even in rural and mountain areas.  Before, girls were kept in the house except to go to the market and public bath.  Now girls are out going to and from school every day, unsupervised and unaccompanied by their parents and family members while in school,  and free to talk with boys at school.   They have opportunities for freedom never before available to Middle Eastern girls.  So yes, the Generation Gap does exist.

Sex education is mostly absent in Middle Eastern societies (after all, no need is seen for it since girls are not supposed to be doing anything at all before they are married).  The result of this is that more out-of-wedlock pregnancies are happening.  Even pediatricians are being pro-active in bringing up the subject of birth control pills with high school girls and their mothers.

In my view, it takes at least a full generation for the Generation Gap to close a bit.  Teenagers will always want to be different from their parents, no matter how “hip” their parents were in their own time.  But this type of difference is far less than the amount of difference in a Generation Gap.  I predict that today’s Generation Gap in the Middle East will last another 30 years.

–Lynne Diligent

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13 Responses to “The Generation Gap in the Arab World”

  1. Bruce Stewart Says:

    We don’t often get insight into “life as it is being lived” from this part of the world, just what passes for “news”. This is much appreciated!

    The rise in the use of television, private transportation, etc. has led to this cultural shift in many different lands up until now. It’s good to see the stirrings happening here, for a “Reformation” and “Enlightenment” are dearly needed to provide new vitality and culturally-appropriate growth within Muslim lands.


  2. Happy Elf Mom Says:

    Thank you, Lynne. Will be interesting to see how Muslim society changes over the next 30 years as well.


  3. Jim Taggart Says:

    CBC Radio in Ottawa, Canada (where I live) has been running a series on Islam in Canada. I’ve enjoyed listening to it and gaining a better understanding of the diversity of Muslims across this huge country. I recall watching documentaries in the past few years that examined the stress first generation immigrant youth face, torn between peer pressure and abiding by their parents’ rules. In some cases it lead to suicide, in particular among young females.

    For your readers, Canada’s projected population growth rate of Muslims far exceeds that of the United States. Studies have shown that immigrants are assimilating well into Canadian society, yet maintaining their customs. The protests, violence and racist taunts that are prevalent in many parts of Europe are mostly absent in Canada, and until recently the U.S. Unfortunately, many Americans are adopting the belief that there’s a bad Muslim under every bed. Whether any semblance of common sense will ever prevail again in America is an open question.


  4. middleagedmuaythai Says:

    I think a generation gap is a good thing. I feel it is good for the parents to have their views challenged and it is good for young people to not just accept the world as it is. A culture is not static but an evolving thing; cultures that stay static tend to die – in my opinion.


  5. Mark Says:

    Wow – GREAT pictures! I lived through the generation gap in the US – was a part of it, as a matter of fact. Sexual revolution, mind expanding, anti-war demonstrating, anti-discrimination protesting, Vietnam, draft – a lot was going on.

    I am not as sanguine as other responders that this is necessarily a good thing. So very much of what we tried to do in the 1960’s went wrong when it became reality, so much was based on a lack of respect for the older members of a society – it was kind of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I’m also not confident that the education of girls plays an integral causative part of the changes – but you make some very good points. I think it is more due to general affluence, levels of communication, and not just general education levels – but something about the general level of education compared to the education of the parent generation. My thinking on this is not yet clear – but look at the US in the 50’s and 60’s. The availability of general education did not change that much. The levels of education changed some – due to the GI bill – but that was for the parent generation. However, there was a thought – an attitude – “why listen to elders when you can get better information from a book?” Where did that attitude come from? I do not know, but I think it was part of what happened in the US then – and from what I hear, part of what is happening in the north African and Arabian gulf states now. I guess that is the definition of generation gap, though, isn’t it! A disconnect between the elder generation and the upcoming youth who are about to be adults or are newly adult.

    And, again, I am not so sanguine that this will be seen as a good thing. Such periods of social change seem to easily become violent. Look at the French revolution – a time almost universally revered today as a good thing – but to live in that day and age was to have a short life expectancy.

    I remember Iranian students at college before the Shah was expelled. I think they were going through something similar to the “generation gap” at that time – and look how that turned into a repressive regime. In Iran – the elder generation has so far “won” the generation gap war. A lot of the attitudes of that repressive regime are in direct response to the “new” attitudes of the youthful side of the generation gap.

    Well, as always, one must hope for the best, and work to do what is possible to make it that way.


  6. Lynne Diligent Says:

    A friend of mine in America sent me the following message by email:

    “I always took the “generation gap” as a fad in America. I always thought it was an unfortunate fad. Mainly it’s unfortunate in that people mindlessly stereotype, all the while thinking the are somehow being modern or enlightened or something. Didn’t talk of the generation gap in America start in the sixties and, as I recall, persisted to some extent through the eighties. During that time there was also plenty of rhetoric about not stereotyping. But that rhetoric did’t stop people from mindlessly stereotyping the young and the old as on opposite sides of a divide. My observation was that in general there was no cultural divide between generations, other than a certain amount of difference that is always true. I felt there was no more generation gap in the sixties than there would have been in the twenties, or any other decade. We just liked to talk about it starting in the sixties.

    But saying the generation gap in America was mostly fad and rhetoric doesn’t have much to do with what you talk about in the middle east. Worldwide communication is bound to assault old ways. That is bound to be very painful in many cases. Differences in generational outlooks, and even values, seems inevitable, producing generation gaps that are very real, and wrenching. Cultures that have clung to the past will find that increasingly impossible to do, in the middle east and in other parts of the world.

    The whole world will eventually homogenize, it seems to me, and it won’t homogenize on anything but a modern basis. But that will take decades and even centuries. And as we progress we may be surprised to learn that some cultural values and practices that are dismissed by some as outmoded are not going to go away. The nuclear family might be an example. I presume the nuclear family is not going to go away because it fits human nature. (We have our instincts, after all. Have you read A View Of Instinct on my website?) Nazism certainly tried to tear down the nuclear family. I think Marxism does somewhat the same, but I don’t know too much about that. But I think if we could come back in 500 years and take a look around we would find the nuclear family looks pretty much the same as it always has.”


  7. Lynne Diligent Says:

    An American friend living in Egypt also sent me a comment by email:

    “At the almost age of 71, I feel in a generation gap myself. I was told the other day that my attitude about people doing what is “right” is passe and that people only now do what is cheaper, faster, etc.

    I feel the new youth culture has been created in part by the use of mobile phones, satellite TV and of course, the internet.

    10 years ago in Egypt you would never see teenage girls walking around especially at night and flirting with boys, and it was forbidden to talk to a boy on the phone. Now parents can no longer control the imput of information that their children have. As with everything else in life – two sides to every coin – some good from this exposure and some bad!

    Feeling old, but wise!”


  8. Judy Says:

    I believe a lot of this change in the Middle East (and other less developed countries are no doubt the same) has resulted from cell phones and then internet penetration. 15 years ago I remember having a discussion about teenage rebellion with some Azeri university students and they didn’t even understand what I meant. I’m sure things would be very different now. As others have noted, it brings both good and bad, but there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. And as middleagedmuaythai says, challenging the status quo is what keeps us evolving.


  9. Mike Lehr Says:

    I find this all very exciting and refreshing. I’m really interested in how this might affect the West especially since many of their societies are much older demographically. Also, since the United States seems to assimilate other cultures by integrating aspects of them, I’m wondering what the Arabic contributions might be.


  10. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Technology is creating an even larger generation gap. It’s not just about HAVING the technology (such as cell phones with cameras); it’s about how the technology is USED.

    In a recent case just written up in the New York Times, a middle-school American girl snapped a nude photo of herself and sent it to a boy she was just about to start dating. Another girl asked him to send it to her “just to see it.” That girl sent it viral on the internet to bully the first girl. In the comments section, commenter number two (Nttorney) wrote:

    “As the article aptly states, sexting is the consequence of a culture that sees self flaunting and sexualization as something normal. I believe older adults nowadays have an enormous disconnect from young adults and teenagers. Access to online pornography is as simple as a few clicks with nonexistent barriers and is something normal to most teens and young adults of both sexes. For the younger generation, things like pornography, nudity and sex are a normal part of their lives and shape what they deem as acceptable behavior. “

    To some degree, I think this is also going on in the Arab World–the WAYS technology is USED are creating a generation gap.

    Generally speaking, however, women in the Arab world are quite CAREFUL about who is allowed to take their photo/have their photo because they fear “someone might do something bad with it.”

    My point here is NOT that girls in the Arab world are “sexting,” although they ARE sending a lot of messages back and forth with boys, which was never done in any previous generation. My point is that the WAYS technology is being used among the younger generations is DIFFERENT than the way it’s being used among those over 35-40 who adopt the same technology.


  11. eva626 Says:

    great post!!! this is very true…although i have meet people who married first cousins and the children defects are rare…as far as i have seen at least. anyway thise was a good post, the middle east society, be it children. teens. or young adults, are getting influenced by the society trends and this is a type of conditioning the middle east is running into. I think it is recking the ideology of a clean living. This whole nonsense about dating is getting out of hand around the world. if you display the pros and cons…you can see which weighs more! great write up


  12. pat Says:

    Hi Lynne, i’ve enjoyed reading yr posts 🙂

    I’m English and I`ve been based in the middle east for 15 years, and worked extensively throughout the region. In my experience there is far more cultural diversity within the M-E than there is in, say, Europe. Consequently it is much harder to make generalisations about the region as a whole. Social norms, including those relating to different generations, vary enormously between, say, Saudi and Lebanon, or Israel and Turkey or Egypt.


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