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Dads Along The Nile

By Harald Breiding-Buss

Arabs and Westerners don’t really seem to understand each other. But as far as love of our children goes, we still live on the same planet, reports Harald Breiding-Buss

Admit it – when you think of Arab men you think of insensitive patriarchs who wouldn’t go near a baby if their life depended on it, because that’s strictly women’s work.

You think of the guys that make their women go veiled so as to not stir their insatiable lusts and wake the devil in them.

When they come home they tie their camel up outside and beat the kids up for talking back to their father.

Well, in an age where the myths about men as uncaring brutes go out the window by the dozens all over the world, not even those desert toughies are safe from being suspected of being softies at heart.

In a study conducted by Cairo gender specialist Soumaya Ibrahim, interviewing 101 males and females in urban and rural Egyptian locations, the traits men attributed to fatherhood most often were compassion, love, kindness and generosity! Females agreed entirely,and added ‘spiritual bondage’ to the top of their hitlist, something that ranked much further down with the men.

“There were numerous examples of what fathers were doing to show this compassion”, says Soumaya Ibrahim.

“One of them, for example, I remember was an Upper Egyptian father, who was a lawyer and who used to leave his work every morning at the same time to go to the nursery of his little daughter to put her to sleep there, as no one else was able to do that” Men from Upper Egypt are normally considered particularly traditional and religious, and remote to their children.

‘Financial fulfillment of needs’ was much more often mentioned by mothers than by fathers. But while gender divisions may break down in Egypt, too, social pressure remains strong to perform according to certain traditions.

Egyptian dads stay away from washing or bathing their young children due to a strong social taboo. Being present at the birth is also discouraged.

Tradition has it that, in fact, a father should sleep somewhere else if the birth is imminent. But: “There seems to be a certain bond between father and child, which does not necessarily entail performing regular duties.” observes Soumaya.

And, as far as the birth is concerned, in Egypt as elsewhere babies are mostly born in hospitals, without the need for dad to move out.

After outings and spending leisure time with their children, punishment is the parental activity fathers engage most often in, according to this study.

Traditionally, fathers also select the name of their newborns, especially if they are male and if they are the firstborns. The study found that the practice of name giving for a particular child was predictive of how involved the father will later be in the child’s life.

If he refrained from any role in the name giving he would not be very involved later. If he took sole responsibility, he would become an authoritarian figure. If both parents decided together, there would be more sharing later on in the child’s life.

Things were more relaxed in the country than in the big cities.

While the researchers observed that there was little difference in what respondents thought was most important about fatherhood, children spent decidedly more time with their dads in the under-industrialised Egyptian countryside, which is as close to primieval society as you can get these days.

Children roam around more freely and with much less individual supervision than a city slicker would be, comfortable with.

“This was specially true, when I posed the question if fathers are, involved in taking their children out.”, reports Soumaya Ibrahim.

“This issue was not understood at all by the villagers, since it turned out village life does not need someone to take children out.They simply roam around in the village visiting their friends and relatives and this at quite a young age.”

Neither was men caring for sick or injured children as much a problem for Egyptians as research says it is for Western families.

In the countryside “it is [considered] a moral and religious duty to look after any one in need, be it their own child or their neighbour’s.

In case of emergencies or accidents for example, men would not hesitate offering their help regardless of whose child it is.” But Soumaya discovered similar attitudes even in the cities.

“I was also amazed to find that there are quite a number of fathers, who live in the city and who are employed and still take sick leave for their children (out of their annual leave), to stay with children, if their mothers have used up their leave allowances or cannot for any reason remain home.” she says.

Egypt, too, has its own brand of research about children who grow up without a father, giving another indication that fathers can’t be quite the distant authoritarians they are believed to be.

Having no live-in father results in less self-respect and compassion in both, boys and girls, according to local studies.

Negative effects are most likely if a father is not present during early childhood, says one Egyptian study.

While feelings about the perceived unpredictability and ruthlessness of Arab Muslims are once again growing in the West after the attacks on the US, fathers here as everywhere carry on raising their children as best as they know, with love, compassion and feelings not too different from any Western father.

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