The Role of Children in Family and Society in the M iddle East: Cases from Cairo and Syria Essay

The Role of Children in Family and Society in the Middle East: Cases from Egypt and Syria

This paper provides a brief overview of the traditional role of children in the family and society in the Middle East. It asks the questions of how these roles made some children vulnerable to harm and poverty as the region changed in the 20th century, and what can happen in the 21st century to equip children for life as adults. Today, in the Middle East children are seen working long hours in jobs as varied as shining shoes, selling tissues in coffee shops and on the streets, and serving as apprentices in craft shops. Children, who not so visible, weave carpets, perform domestic chores, and sift through garbage as part of the labor force. Many children show the effects of poor nutrition and unsafe environments. Children do attend schools in rural villages and crowded cities; young Quranic students recite the Quran from the rooftops in the very old sections of Cairo; and young girls eagerly seek more knowledge of mathematics.

What Are the Characteristics of the Traditional Family?
In the Middle East, the family is the traditional basic socioeconomic unit. It is mainly patriarchal, hierarchical (with respect to sex and age), and extended. This holds true in rural, urban, and tribal structures. The structure of the extended family guarantees the maintenance of proper social protocols, and determines the social ranking and roles and responsibilities of each member. A critical role of this structure has been to ensure the continuance of the existence of the extended family/ tribe and its rights (including those to water, land, and mutual defense) and ensure the welfare (protection, economic assistance, and general support) of each member. Norms, which include line of passage of political authority, inheritance rights, custody of minor children, definition of households, and observance of religious events, vary across the Middle East. The relationship between the various families or ethnic groups in a geographical region is influenced by the availability of resources, alliances and marriages, and the impact of outside (notably western) societies and governments,

Members of a family and the members of a given household are not necessarily the same. The definition of a “household” varies. Who lives with whom and for what period of time and which ties are maintained is an important part of the structure of the society and is determined, again, by the norms of a particular family or ethnic group. The most frequently encountered household is the nuclear family. In an “ideal” situation, the other households of the extended family live close by.

The honor of the family is critical. “Honor is, in brief, the ability to live up to the ideal expectations of the society.” 1 The actions of individuals determine the honor, or lack thereof, given the family or tribe. The success or failure of the individual reflects on the entire family. A misstep by any one member of the family reflects on the whole unit, hence the need to adhere to rigid norms. The honor of a man is closely tied to the sexual behavior and general reputation of his women kin. 2 Hence the roles of males and females are clearly defined and after an initial brief period of what might be considered a carefree childhood, children are indoctrinated into their respective gender roles. The roles and domains of men and women are distinct and usually very separate which results in segregation of children by gender at an early age.

Since the stability of the family depends on stable and productive marriages, the determination of who marries whom and under what conditions they start and continue their marriages are of interest to the whole group, not just the couple considering marriage. Parents are held responsible for facilitating good and stable marriages for both male and female children.

The birth of children makes the marriage of a man and wife more secure. Many men wait until after the birth of several children to take a job requiring migration. Women especially need children to establish their place in society. Children are seen not as economic burdens, but as economic assets.

What Changes Occurred in the Traditional Family in the Late 20th Century? Events in the 20th century which impacted the traditional ways of life in the Middle East included: the colonial occupations, the disruption from regional disputes, the discovery and exploitation of oil and other resources, the rise of various Islamic movements, and the availability of technological advances. Each assertion of outside political control over land, water, or trade practices altered the relationship of the traditionally structured societies to the controlling political entity and to each other; and, in general, increased the authority of a political structure that was inconsistent with tribal/ ethnic boundaries. The scarcity of land to be subdivided among each new generation, resulted in changes and practices and practices in kinship / tribal relationships, including depriving women of their land rights and impacting cousin marriages. The lack of extended family ties and resources exacerbated the situation of those families that had few resources to start with due to lack of inherited wealth or changes in local economies. When families were scattered across a region, the members of a more prosperous family tended to keep in closer contact with kin, had more stable households, and used kinship ties to their economic advantage more often than those of a less economically advantaged family line.

Children and women experienced a negative impact when urbanization replaced nomadic or rural society. Since they were surrounded by people who were not their kin in urban areas, the women were more isolated and had more restrictions on their lives. Visiting between women and their families was more difficult due to transportation issues; and the marketing and other domestic functions that required going outside the home were more often the man’s responsibility, again due to the environment. The need of men to travel a distance to jobs and the possibility of migration jobs increased the isolation of women. In turn this often placed more household and caretaker responsibilities on the children due to the isolation from the extended family. The migration of a family from a rural agricultural area to an urban area, in anticipation of expanded economic opportunities for the adults, may result in the child working when the adult’s opportunities do not become a reality.

Men in the Middle and East North Africa (MENA) region were more likely to have direct access to wage employment, while women were largely economically dependent upon male family members. Gender discrimination concerning access to jobs frequently became codified in family law: women often needed permission of husband, father, or guardian before seeking employment, requesting a loan, starting a business, or traveling. Inheritance laws favored males and families tended to make larger investment in education of boys than for girls in rural areas, but not in urban areas.

How Have the Changes Affected the Lives of Children?
Children’s legal rights:
The legal rights of children and laws concerning education and employment are fairly new developments. In the traditional society, these were the responsibilities of the family or tribal unit and were prescribed by the customs, long established norms, and Islamic teachings.

Traditional practices and current law, especially Personal Status Laws, focus on inheritance and custody of minors and support of the elderly. (See Table 1.) The males have the dominant role in most areas. For example, when women have the right to inherent property in their families, their portion is, at most, half of their brothers. When issues of custody of young children arise due to death or divorce, the father’s family plays the dominant role. In the case of divorce, the practice has become to automatically award custody of the children to the mother (unless the divorce was for reasons of honor). If the divorced Mother remarries, the custody goes to her mother. The third possibility is giving custody to the husband’s mother. This applies to age 11, after age 12, the children decide for themselves. In most families, it is the role of the sons to ensure that the parents are cared for in their old age. The males have the responsibility to provide for the care of the women and children, and, hence, control over their lives. The rights and education of children are set in the context of these practices. Girls are expected to learn the skills necessary for roles as mothers and wives; and boys are sent to the fields, pastures, or shops to learn agricultural, herding, or technical skills. Within this context of laws affecting families and, hence, the status of children, the education of children and their participation in the labor force are of great concern to national governments and international organizations. The effects of the current situation are felt beyond the region. It may be helpful to look at some statistics on worldwide and regional literacy and child labor. As shown in Tables 2 and 4 -7, literacy has not been universally valued, and there is some cause and effect relationship between literacy and child labor. It is also clear that the Middle East is not the worst area when child labor and literacy are considered.

When political structures above the extended family assume responsibilities for education and create regulations, there are new opportunities for children, but also can result in conflicts within the family. In most countries some level of compulsory education is the law. (See Table 3.) The resources allocated to this are varied and mostly inadequate.

In many countries the content of the education is determined by the government in response to its goals, not to further enhance the lives of individual citizens. The curriculum and training of teachers depend on the goals and resources of the political system in control at a given time.

Any changes from the tradition of rote learning and

reliance on religious schools require time and resources. The access to jobs following graduation and maintenance of literacy in adults is a major challenge. In Egypt, for example, although a youth may be able to read at an acceptable level when he or she leaves school, without the daily need or opportunity to read or write the Standard Arabic learned in school, the level of literacy usually drops drastically to a non functional level. Egypt’s constitution mandates that education should be free for all children. The Education Law No. 139 (1981) calls for compulsory primary education through 8th grade and requires children to attend school until age fifteen. 3 In 2001 there were 6 years of primary education in Egypt (from 1990 to 1999 due to large number of students only 5 years were provided) followed by 3 years of preparatory education. Students start school between ages of six and nine and the compulsory attendance laws are not strictly enforced. However, efforts to increase the percentage of rural children, especially girls, have yielded good results.

In 1996 the Ministry of Education established the Mubarak Program for Social Cooperation to provide school grants to families and /or provision of school uniforms, books, supplies, etc. 4 This aided 169,000 children in the 1996-1997 school year. Rural attendance was encouraged by building more one-room schools within walking distance, the hiring of more female teachers, and the provision of meals during the school day. Labor:

Although a man is expected to support his wife and children, most children are expected to contribute to the household as early as possible. Though restrictions on child labor exist in most nations, children still work. The International Labor Organization reports that children work the longest hours and are the worst paid of all laborers. The working conditions, health hazards, and potential abuse most often do not provide the stimulation for proper physical and mental development; children are deprived of a childhood; and usually relegated to a life of drudgery. Children work in the carpet, leather tanning, and textile industries. Apprenticeships are most often in auto repair, crafts, construction, brick making, and textile production. Many children, especially daughters of poor families, work as domestic servants in the homes of the wealthy families. In urban areas, street or homeless children, who are usually considered unemployable by people, sell items or resort to begging.

The abolition of child labor creates major problems if done in situations in which other financial support for the family and access to education for the children to ensure better paying jobs do not exist. Child labor is often necessary for the survival of the family and in many cases the child may be the major wage earner in a family. Even if a child’s wages are not critical to the survival of the family, the wages are often put toward securing desirable marriages for the children – wedding costs in case of a son, and clothes and care to enhance prospects of the daughter. And, if education is not easily accessible, of poor quality, or does not guarantee future employment, child labor is seen as more valuable than education. As seen in several countries, the increased enrollment in Islamic religious schools is often based on the hard choice of a family between subsistence earnings from the child and the offer of free room, board, and schooling by the religious school.

In Egypt in 1996, the minimum age children were allowed to begin working outside home was raised from 12 to 15 years to be in line with schooling expectations. Despite the law, a significant proportion of children continue to work. Multiple definitions of what constitutes work and methods of collecting data cause confusion and require careful analysis of the data. Table 8 shows levels of work as defined by the International Labour Organization in Geneva.

A study published in 2001concluded that some work has no direct effect on schooling for boys, but has a strong negative effect for girls. 5 The report says these findings have important policy implications, but the resolution of the issues is difficult. They did not advocate that government stamp out all forms of more visible market work for boys. And it’s even more difficult to regulate the work of girls, which are usually subsistence agricultural or domestic chores.

Another finding of the Economic Research Forum for the Arab Countries, Iran and Turkey (ERF) concerned the effect of the absence of one parent in the household on schooling and work. The absence of the father (temporary or permanent) did not have a strong effect on either work or schooling for boys or girls. However the absence of the mother and whether or not there was a stepmother had a quite different effect on boys and girls. Boys with neither mother nor stepmother experienced no effect. Boys with a stepmother attended school less and were more likely to work. The school attendance of girls with neither mother nor stepmother dropped by 32 percentage points and the likelihood of substantial increase in amount of work (either within the home or paid labor) increased by 19 percentage points. Presence of a stepmother in place of mother had no effect on the girls schooling and work.

Agriculture is another area in which use of child labor is traditional and remains high. A major concern today is the employment in Egypt of over one million children between ages seven and twelve in cotton pest management. Under the authority of the agriculture ministry, they work long hours (without adequate protection) exposed to heat and pesticides. Although not subject to forced recruitment, many farmers do not resist such recruitment of their children. The Human Rights Watch notes that the size of children and the allowable wages make them most desirable for the work of leafworm control. Egypt’s adoption of the Child Law in 1996 has been undermined by this tolerance of seasonal agricultural employment.6

Examples of government sponsored healthcare systems are found in Syria and Egypt. Table 10 provides some characteristics of how the systems work. In Egypt, the system is multi-tiered. Basic health care is free and medicines are available, even in the remote villages. However the pressures of the growing population are straining this system. Private clinics and specialized treatment are available only to the wealthy. Syria has a public and private health care system. Although progress is being made, rural areas have fewer doctors and clinics. Child immunizations in both countries receive considerable attention, especially for measles, polio, and diphtheria. Many Syrians and Egyptians use traditional health practices. Increasing Education Opportunities and Reducing Child Labor: Any strategy for accomplishing this must address the economic situation of the family in the present time and in the future. “Child labor exists because education systems and labor markets do not function properly, because poor households

cannot insure themselves against income fluctuations, and because perverse incentives exist that create a demand for child labor.” 7

The complexities of the situation are apparent in the pottery factories of Cairo, one of the most hazardous child labor situations which results in multiple generations of nonliterate, non skilled adults. A pilot project at The Center for Studies and Programs of Alternative Development in Cairo was the site of a study that followed 44 child laborers from old Cairo and their families over a period of several years. 8 All of the children worked in the pottery industry in Kum Ghurab. Forty-seven percent of the children were the sole financial providers for the family, and the average family size was seven. Although the fathers were typically the decision-makers in the family, the mothers and children seemed to have a dominant role in determining that the child would work.

This pilot project was modeled on the work of the famous artist Mohamed Mandur, who had been a child laborer. The children were between the ages of six and fifteen and many of their parents had also been child laborers in the same industry. Quite a few of the fathers were disabled at an early age as a result of the employment and, hence, the reason that the family was dependent on the wages of the younger generation. Half of the children in the study participated in The Center for Studies and Programs of Alternative Development, attending educational and recreational programs one day a week. Ninety percent of the children said they came to the Center to learn. This desire to learn was evident in one child who lived with his brothers and did not have electricity, so he finished his homework on the steps outside the center after it was closed for the night. In addition to literacy classes, the children were given art lessons to develop their skills so as to improve future job potential.

Most children in the study had never enrolled in school. Those, who had, dropped out for economic reasons, and/or because they were not successful in school. Many parents reported that children were mocked by teachers when they did not receive private lessons. (These private lessons not only supplement the meager pay of the teachers, but also indicate the lack of adequate public school instruction). According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study in the 1999 Economist, 40% of the population of Egypt spend one-sixth of their income on private lessons, but one-quarter still drop out before grade five. 9 The practice by the government of Egypt of guaranteeing employment upon graduation from a college or institution has been discontinued. However, when jobs are available, a diploma is more and more a requirement for even the most basic jobs.

In general, the prospects of a child depend on the families social and economic standing, same as in the past. Families with adequate resources have adapted to the new economic and political environment by traditional means – use of family ties and financial resources. The roles of the children may or may not follow those traditionally assigned to girls and boys. In many places the changing role of women means that girls have more access to education and a wider range of employment. For children of families with more limited resources, the consequences are more dire than in the past. It is rare today for a child’s world to be limited to his/ her village when they enter the late teens. For example, Table 11 provides some evidence of outside influences on youth in Syria.

It seems inevitable that if a child will live in a world larger than a village as an adult, then literacy, employment, and health issues must be resolved. And, these require collaboration on a regional and global level. The prevalence of regional strife and its diversion of resources and its destruction of the environment and infrastructure exacerbate the problems afflicting children.

In his book, “A Child from the Village”, Sayyid Qutb makes the point that the responsibility of the child is to restore and maintain the honor of the family at all costs.10 An obvious (and rather naïve, but not impossible) strategy for the 21st century would be to:

Refocus the resources that go into maintaining regional strife into preventing military disturbances and developing infrastructure;

Focus the attention of governments and the appropriate non-governmental organizations on goals for a long term sustainable economy and societal structure; And adjust the strategies as needed so that within a few generations, there would be children who would maintain the honor of their families in a manner that benefits them and society as a whole.

1. Bates, Daniel G. and Rassam, Amal. Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East, 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001, page 236.
2. Ibid.,236.
3. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of
International Labor Affairs. “Egypt.” February 14, 2005), page 3. 4. Ibid., 3.
5. Assaad, Ragui. “The Effect of Child Work on School Enrollment in Egypt.” ERF Forum Newsletter Vol. 8, No.2 , October 2001)
6. “ Defending Human Rights
Worldwide.” retrieved on February 7, 2005,
7. (Rifaey, Tonia, with Mohamoud M. Murtada, and Mohamed Abd el-Azeem. “Urban Children and Poverty: Child Labor and Family Dynamics: Case Studies in Old Cairo.” The Center for Studies and Programs of Alternative Development, Egypt 2002, p.9).

8. Ibid,
9. Ibid.
10. Qutb, Sayyid. A Child from the Village. Edited, translated, and with introduction by John Calvert and William Shepard. Syracuse: Syracuse
University Press, 2004. page 135).


Select Bibliography
Assaad, Ragui. “The Effect of Child Work on School Enrollment in Egypt.” ERF Forum Newsletter Vol. 8, No.2 (October 2001).
Bates, Daniel G. and Rassam, Amal. Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East, 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001.
Delvin, John F. Syria: Modern State in an Ancient Land. Boulder, Boulder: Westview Press Inc., 1983.
El Deeb, Bothaina. “Social Statistics in Egypt.” United Nations Statistics Division. 88/32 (28 April 2003).
Hoodfar, Homa. Between Marriage and the Market: Intimate Politics and Survival in Cairo. California: University of California Press, 1997.
Hopwood, Derek. Egypt: Politics and Society 1945-1984. 2nd ed. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1985.
Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview Press Inc., 1999.
Qutb, Sayyid. A Child from the Village. Edited, translated, and with introduction by John Calvert and William Shepard. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004. Rifaey, Tonia, with Mohamoud M. Murtada, and Mohamed Abd el-Azeem. “Urban Children and Poverty: Child Labor and Family Dynamics: Case Studies in Old Cairo.” The Center for Studies and Programs of Alternative Development, Egypt 2002.


Roudi-Fahimi, Farzaneh and Moghadam, Valentine. “Empowering Women, Developing Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa.” Population Reference Bureau Washington DC 2003.
Siddiqi, Faraaz and Patrinos, Harry Anthony. “Child Labor: Issues, Causes and Interventions.” HCO. Human Capital Development and Operations Policy: Working Papers, HCOWP 56 Available at

Tiltnes, Aage A. et al. “Magnitude and Characteristics of Working Children in Syria: A Report to UNICEF, Syria Based on a National Household Survey” UNICEF August 2002.
Fernea, Warnock Elizabeth, editor, Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change, Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 1985. ____________. “Egypt.” U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs. February 14, 2005.

__________. “ Defending Human Rights Worldwide.” retrieved on February 7, 2005,
____________. “At a glance: Egypt” . retrieved on February 9, 2005

____________. “At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic”. retrieved on February 9, 2005,

____________. “Looking at Health Car”. retrieved on February 16, 2005,
____________. “Looking at Health Care”. retrieved on February 16, 2005,