Opinion The Marriage Issue

Why we need to rethink our Khaleeji parenting habits

"Being a parent...does not mean absolute authority."

By Hasnaa Mokhtar

Artwork by Aya Mobaydeen depicts impactful words that children are told by their parents such as “aib” (shameful) and “be a man.”

I am not the motherly type. Growing up, my daydreams were never about the “happily ever after”, or the perfect wedding, or the tons of babies I was destined to have. I used to lay in the tiny bedroom I shared with my grandmother, who raised me in Jeddah, listening to my walkman (ancient music player), and fantasize endlessly. I imagined myself as an independent businesswoman travelling the world to give leadership talks. There were no children involved at any stage.

Fast forward a couple of decades later, I am now a mother of two: Ammar, 21, and 4-year-old Malik. I confess, motherhood is petrifying. Parenting carries a lot of weight in our Khaleeji (Arab Gulf) communities. Most of the time, it is socially marketed as a one-way relationship that demands unquestionable, sometimes even blind, loyalty from kids to their parents. Period. No questions asked. Otherwise, the child is stamped with the mark of disobedience.

Even when life threatening neglect or abuse occurs, the popular narrative is to take it in and remember the higher purpose of submission. For example, many parents continue to justify violence, in all its forms, as “disciplining”. Child protection laws and policies have been passed in all Gulf countries to preserve children’s rights. Yet, the problem persists: committed by parents much of the time, in the form of neglect leading to death and abuse. Kids subjected to such trauma internalise the suffering and grow up to perpetuate it. The cycle of abuse continues for generations, until someone is brave enough to break it.

“I remain a not-so-motherly type. I am interested in doing more with my life than childbearing and rearing. No shame in that.”

But aren’t relationships about giving and receiving? Why do we treat the parent-child relations with rigidity? It feels as though many of us have confined the duties of parenting to basic necessities i.e. food, school, shelter and means of survival. It almost revolves around spending and giving money at all stages of a child’s life.

And let me not rant about domestic help and the heavy “parenting” burden they are forced to carry and how that impacts children’s wellbeing. What about confronting our own demons as parents and the amount of intended, or unintended harm, abandonment and trauma we inflict on our little ones? How does that shape their characters, brains and future? What about projecting our own racism, classism and sexism on their developing brains, spirits and bodies? And how about what we teach young boys about manhood and young girls about femininity?

Be a man!” are the some of the most destructive words a parent can say to a young boy. It is something I learned studying the relationship between the social construction of masculinity and violence. It can make young men live their whole lives trying to prove their masculinity by any means necessary, including violence. “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” said prominent activist and author Frederick Douglass.

‘ “Be a man!” are some of the most destructive words a parent can say to a young boy.’

And let’s not forget about grooming young, ambitious girls into their “wifey” roles. The first wish a girl’s mother is granted almost always revolves around marriage. May you see her become a beautiful bride soon insha’Allah, is a phrase we always hear. But if Mr. Charming never shows up, her spirit is crushed. She feels incomplete. Empty. Imperfect.

Having my new born Ammar was like a blazing mirror that reflected all my neglected wounds and ugly flaws back to me. I learned the hard way that it was not about what I told the little one to do or not to do. It was about how I behaved around him, especially when no one was watching  because he was; how I recognised when I made a mistake or yelled at him for no reason and apologised to him explaining that I was having a bad day, but that it was no excuse for my behavior. That it was all right to admit that I didn’t have the answers to everything, or that I was struggling to break habits of familial abuse. That I had to learn to hug my little child multiple times a day and validate his existence by telling him how proud I am of him, and how much I loved him for no reason and without expectations. Unconditional love.

“It can get lonely and tough to mend the harm done by the widely accepted parenting ideologies of family, peers and colleagues.”

That it was totally acceptable for a little boy to cry and not be labeled weak. That being a male is not equivalent to being a gentleman. That being a parent is not divine and does not mean absolute authority. That mocking or cracking jokes about someone because he or she speaks, looks, or dresses differently is neither funny nor acceptable. That success, income and respect are not entitlements but earned through learning and hard work. That it is all right to make mistakes because who doesn’t? What matters is how we go about fixing our errors and broken parts; how we strive to make better, humbler, more humane beings of our past selves. It continues to be a learning journey for both of us. I keep trying. Parenting coach Sue Atkins says, “There is no such thing as a perfect parent so just be a real one.” 

But it can get lonely and tough to mend the harm done by the widely accepted parenting ideologies of family, peers and colleagues. Dry. Rough. Disconnected. Mandated. Or the pressure of social media, movies and Khaleeji and Arabic dramas that normalise much of our conflicted realities. Because how easy is it to change cultural baggage, moral violence and societal norms that tell you otherwise? It is time that we educate ourselves on the urgent need of raising healthy kids in an unpleasant world; quality and not just quantity. We must hold ourselves, as parents, accountable. We have to challenge our moral superiority and admit that everyone needs to do better.   

“It is time that we educate ourselves on the urgent need of raising healthy kids in an unpleasant world.”

In case you’re still wondering, I remain a not-so-motherly type. I am interested in doing more with my life than childbearing and rearing. No shame in that. No shame otherwise. But we have to agree that whether we choose to have them or not, our offspring are our responsibility to nourish and account for. A decision to have one should not be taken lightly, or treated as a marital accessory.  

But are we ready, as a society, to rethink our parental habits? Commit? Make a conscious decision about when and why we want to have children and how to raise them? Accept the challenge and hold each other accountable? 

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Hasnaa Mokhtar is a Ph.D. candidate in International Development at Clark University. Her research focuses on decolonizing knowledge production of gender-based violence in the Arab Gulf. She worked as a journalist in Arab News, and her articles have appeared in numerous publications. You can read her work here.