[All posts in this series can be found at The Arab Mind archive.]
My work on the Arab Mind series has slowed recently. The preparation time is significant and work and other demands on my time have made it difficult to post on any regular basis. However, this week I received an e-mail that is germane to the topic and worth posting.
Reader DE described his experiences with his American/Christian Egyptian wife and her family. He was specifically concerned with the behavior of his wife's Father. I am reproducing his e-mail with minimal editing:
I hope you will please respond to my email as you have a broader understanding of the cultural norms and child-rearing practices of the Arabic nations. I am a Caucasian, educated (communication prof.) male who married a first generation American/Christian (Presbyterian) Egyptian woman in 1999. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. in the late 60s/early 70s. Amal (my wife) is their second born and second daughter. The family tried to portray the perfect Christian as we were dating at a distance before marriage. However, shorty before we were married and more-so after, I began to see that there was major dysfunction in the family and that my wife's "mild" mental health issues, were actually very severe. I was able to deal with my wife's issues (OCD, anxiety, depression, eating disorder, personality disorder) until we had a girl child in 2005. She could not care for the child and would frequently go into a rage when confronted with the problem. I was able to gain control of the situation when Annika (our daughter) was 11 months old, getting Amal into the OCD program at Menninger Clinic in Houston TX. After three months she was asked to leave the program for non-compliance and the head of the clinic Thrustor Borg Vinson recommended I separate or divorce and gain custody of my child. I started the divorce process in Sept. 2006 but have not completed it, as I still love my wife and am hoping my she can find the power to begin to defeat her problems. I did receive custody of Annika with Amal being allowed five four-hour visits every two weeks supervised by her mother and father (Gidu and Tata to my daughter). Here is where my concern lies.
When I would drop Annika off and pick her up I began to note unusual behaviors in how her Grandfather interacted with her.
From ages 1 to 1 and 1/2 he would physically spread her legs while bouncing her up and down fairly roughly on a partially-deflated basketball. From ages 1 and 1/2 to 2 he would bounce her up and down rather vigorously on his lap with her legs spread-eagle across his private area and he would get strangely "goofy". I noted my daughters private area seemed more spread out on Annika's visitation days. I talked to the family about it and was assured he was just being a loving grandfather. But then enters game three, which I definitely find inappropriate and invasive for my daughter's age. Here it is: Gidu will pull my daughter by the legs, spread them apart and tickle/rub her from the toes up the thighs, and to the waist and stomach and back. he does this very, very quickly and hoots and hollers at her simultaneously. She began to retreat to her mother saying she was scared. On at least two occasions Amal says that he would not stop when the child screamed for him to stop. He would not stop when Amalaske him to stop. He would not stop when Tata requested he stop. And after being asked to stop he would fly into a rage telling the adult women he can play with his granddaughter however he wants. Recently, my almost-three-year-old daughter told me she does not want to go to their home due to fighting and a few days later when asked she told me that Gidu touches her private area. I have not allowed her to visit there since that statement.
My wife has agreed that the behaviors of her father have gone too far, but also thinks it's just uncontrolled "rough play." I question that. Amal's parent's are very defensive and have implied that Amal should not comply with a change of visitation supervisors. Amal thinks she should comply and has had to flee her parent's home due to the argumentative, controlling atmosphere. I have contacted CPS, the police, my attorney, and started therapy for my daughter. I believe I have done what I have needed to do. I am also researching child abuse and the Arabic culture.
Could you please respond with what you know about these behaviors? Specifically. do you think this is a form of domination? Incest? Where do you believe this behavior would lead if left unchecked? How long would it go on? Is it likely to have occurred to my wife and her siblings? (The three children all have mental health issues). If this is cultural, does the Grandfather truly believe he's done nothing "wrong" as he claims, or do you think he's aware that his behavior could be damaging and perhaps deviant.
A single unfortunate family's experiences with child abuse cannot be generalizable, however, there are several points that stand out in DE's descriptions. The most glaring involves the grandfather's belief that he can do whatever he wants with his granddaughter, a belief based on the "child/female as chattel", that has been legally abolished in our culture (though there remain many people who continue to act as if their wives, girlfriends, children are possessions rather than independent people with their own rights and minds.)
In addition, the evidence that such behavior is not considered particularly anomalous in the Arab culture is wide spread. In a second e-mail, in response to my request for permission to post his note, DE responded:
Feel free to post it in full. I could, and might write a book concerning my experience. My wife is currently in Boston at an OCD treatment center and she is willing to accept that her dad was playing with our daughter in an inappropriate way. I hope she can come to terms with the idea that he more than likely played with her in the same manner, which more than likely helped to shape who she is today, problems included. Check out Lloyd DeMause's site. It's one of the few that address the issue of incest in the history of childrearing. Also, I found a study of Cairo in 1973 that said from 25-37% (I think those were the numbers) of families reported incest (and that's only reported cases). There is a secret world out there... and not just in the Arab world. I couldn't believe it until I experienced it. When I first saw the sites like DeMause's and another lucidpages.com "Spellbound," I thought they were extremists on the issue. Now I know that the mainstream covers up things and they are closer to the truth. And unfortunately our laws do not protect the children here, but make it easy for perpetrators to get away with stealing children's innocence. And I'm certain the laws are even worse in the Arab world in that regard. Thanks again for helping others to see some truth regarding the Arab mind.
DE's daughter can psychologically survive the sexual abuse she was victim to because she had a parent who believed her and did not find the grandfather's behavior appropriate or remain silent about it. While sexual abuse is terribly damaging to a child, the initial trauma is compounded by the complicity of the adults who enable the abuse or ignore the abuse, with the message that the child is not to be believed, is a liar, or is stupid (ie, "it never happened", therefore the child is forced to either doubt the parent, or doubt her own perceptions.)
A culture that denies the abuse and/or facilitates it (many Arab cultures legally consign women and children to the status of chattel) is a culture that dehumanizes its participants. The prevalence of child abuse in Arab culture is unknown but generally regarded as significant. In 2004, the BBC, a network notably friendly to the Arab world, set up a conference to discuss child abuse:
A conference aimed at preventing child abuse in the Arab world has been taking place in Amman, Jordan.
It is the first meeting to gather professionals from 18 Arab countries who are trying to tackle violence against children head on.
They want to draw public attention to an often hidden yet pervasive problem.
The silence surrounding abuse exists on many levels, participants argued, and it must be broken if covert violence against children is to be stopped.
Child protection specialists said the fact that there were no fixed statistics on abuse in the Arab world was shocking, particularly because they know it is widespread.
The number of reported cases is very low, they argued, and that belies the truth about what is really going on.
Gert Kapelari, a delegate for the United Nations children's agency Unicef, said a survey among school children in eight Arab countries showed that the numbers were staggering.
"Where we asked children to what extent they have been victims of abuse or other forms of violence, what comes out of the preliminary findings are really shocking," he said.
"We have to conclude that more than half of the children are, in one way or another, victims of violence and even sometimes of severe abuse," Mr Kapelari added.
In earlier posts in this series I described some of the effects of child abuse on the victims, which include depersonalization reactions, psychic numbing, internalized rage, and a host of other characterological distortions that comprise what Leonard Shengold has described as "Soul Murder." While it is reductionist and, in fact, impossible to draw a direct line from child rearing practices to cultural tendencies, there is little doubt that a culture's child rearing practices will effect the type of character structure(s) of the adults who emerge from the milieu. In the most extreme case, a culture that treats its children as if they are objects whose sole existence and purpose is for the gratification of authority figures (father, grandfather) is a culture that will lack the will to resist authoritarianism. When leaders proclaim that "we love death", the damaged individuals, whose inner selves are already partially dead, are ready recruits for suicidal sacrifice.
One reason that culture is such a stable construct is that it is handed down in multiple, often unconscious, ways from generation to generation. While it is possible for one to adopt a new culture and become part of a new culture, when the majority of a population persist in dysfunctional behaviors that are sanctioned by the culture, the culture becomes extremely resistant to change.
To be continued...