Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When boys want to be boys, and girls...

When boys want to be boys and girls want to be … er, boys

By Tala Al Ramahi

Much has been written on “the other”, whether it is literary texts on orientalism, imperialism and such, yet there seems to be a peculiar species living among us that we still barely understand: the other … sex.

Abdul Salam Darwish, head of Family Reconciliation at Dubai Courts, recalls a social experiment conducted recently on fifth graders at a school in Jordan. The pupils were told: imagine you woke up tomorrow and you had been magically transformed into the opposite sex. The results were unintentionally humorous, and telling to say the least. The 10-year-old boys who imagined they had woken up as girls provided responses such as: “I would kill myself”, “I would go to the hospital and ask them to switch me back” and “I would never leave the house”. The girls’ reponses to their hypothetical sex change were more positive: “I would be the happiest person in the world”, and “I would have a big party and invite all the other boys”.

Despite advances in the cause of women in the region, it seems that being a boy – even a “boy” – is still preferable to being a girl. Differences in lifestyles are so pronounced, it seems, that even fifth graders are subconsciously aware of them.

And while it may be unscientific to extrapolate these findings to the entire region, it seems likely that the results would have been similar if the study had been conducted here. Nevertheless, the same social experiment should be conducted here in the UAE, to better understand our own young people, their outlook on gender relations and their understanding of “the other”. It would also be useful to expand the experiment to older students in high schools and universities to see if the outlook on “the other” changes.

The results of such studies may draw a clearer picture of whether the tremendous strides taken by Emirati women in the workplace are matched by similar advances at home and in their social lives.

The rising divorce rate is a cause for national concern, and steps are being taken by the Ministry of Social Affairs and others to address it. More than half the couples in Dubai who file for divorce do so because they do not understand how to treat their partners, Mr Darwish says. Most do not understand that the needs, wants and behaviours of “the other” are different from their own, a phenomenon he calls “familial illiteracy”.

Mr Darwish’s suggestion for tackling such “illiteracy” is a mandatory nationwide curriculum in universities that would enlighten young adults on the differing needs of each sex, and introduce them to other keys to matrimonal bliss, including how to treat and converse with each other productively.

I believe such a curriculum should be introduced even earlier: in high school, perhaps. The average age of marriage in the UAE is lower than in the West, which means many young men and women will marry or contemplate entering the “golden cage” before they even set foot on a college campus. Many never get as far as university in the first place, so early awareness is key if we hope to tackle this issue.

And there is something else we must consider. How can we become attuned to each others’ needs and understand the opposite sex when we barely interact with them (aside from direct family members) until later in life – at work, or even for the first time after marriage. Perhaps it would be best to foster a healthier view of “the other” by increasing interaction, at least at younger ages, through co-educational classes up to a certain grade.

A study compiled in 2006 by the Strategic Council, a Canadian research firm, found that students at co-ed schools are more confident in expressing their views in the presence of the opposite sex. The study of more than 17,000 students also concluded that they respected members of the opposite sex more because boys learn to interact with and gain respect for their female classmates.

So demystifying the other sex is not a regionally specific puzzle. Even in western cultures, where female-male interaction is substantial, men find it difficult to understand women, and vice versa. That explains the range of “products” on the subject, from the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to the 2000 Mel Gibson movie What Women Want.

Sociological and psychological-focused research on this is vital: and here’s hoping that in the future “I will kill myself” is not the response of a 10-year-old boy when he contemplates life as a girl.

No comments: