Assessing school violence in the Middle East is difficult because there are so many potential compounding and contributing factors. First, defining what makes up the region known as the Middle East is a rather convoluted question. For the purpose of this discussion, the Middle East refers to any of several countries in southwest Asia, including the Persian Gulf states, northern Africa, and the nations of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This region has experienced near-constant political turmoil throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st century. Furthermore, it is a region of great cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity, all of which can contribute to division and violent conflict. Societies within this region are at various levels of economic development and modernization. With this diversity in mind, it is difficult to make any sweeping generalizations about the condition of school violence in the region. The aim of this article is to highlight incidents of school violence from the region, discuss some of the underlying factors, and address measures being taken to mitigate the incidence of school violence in the Middle East.
Violence in the Middle East can be broken down into three key categories: violence perpetrated by teachers, violence perpetrated by students, and gender-based violence. Violence perpetrated by teachers generally takes the form of corporal punishment, which is widely employed as a form of school discipline and includes physical violence, sexual violence, verbal assault, and public humiliation. In a study conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Jordan that was released in 2007, researchers found that more than half of all students in Jordan are subjected to some form of physical abuse or aggressive behavior as a form of punishment in school.
This violence is not restricted to the classroom, but is commonplace within homes as well. Statistics show that more than two-thirds of Jordanian students experience verbal abuse in the home, while more than half experience physical abuse in the classroom. The social and political climate in Jordan is currently strained due to the ongoing conflict occurring within the Gaza strip. Many of the abusive disciplinary measures in Jordanian schools are directed toward children of refugees–children who witness violence around them every day in poverty-stricken refugee camps. Teachers attribute their application of harsh disciplinary methods to a need to create order in an already strained circumstance. Countering this argument, advocates for change in school violence suggest that the strained social and political circumstances make it all the more important that children have a place to learn where they feel safe.
In November 2008, the United Nations Agency for Palestinian Refugees led an initiative to reduce conflict and violent incidents within schools. This initiative is being implemented in UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) schools throughout Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Gaza. Students have also been taking matters into their own hands. In Jordan, a group of students organized on Universal Children’s Day (November 19) and called for a change to the statute that accorded leniency to perpetrators of child abuse.
The violence being perpetrated within classrooms is not entirely one sided, however. Incidents of student violence against teachers are on the rise in Saudi Arabia, despite the severe standards of corporal punishment for students. One teacher was photographed and recorded being beaten until black and blue and falling unconscious at the hands of a student whose grade the teacher refused to change. In another incident, a teacher was held at gunpoint while his car was torched after he reported on students who had been joyriding outside the school building.
Teachers in Saudi Arabia are naturally alarmed by these incidents, and are imploring the government to enforce a stricter penal system. Some believe, however, that the existing model of physical violence and severe punishments inflicted by teachers lies at the heart of the student violence. Muhammad Rajab, a 16-year-old student from a private high school in Jeddah, has noted that many students come from a privileged background and “they generally don’t listen to teachers because of this. They don’t like being told what to do.” Said Rajab, “I remember a pupil who beat up a teacher because he told him not to cheat in exams.” Rajab went on to say that he believed some of the responsibility lay with teachers and their behavior in the classroom: “Our supervisors would sometimes take off their Igals [the black ring worn by Saudi men over their headscarves] and beat pupils who don’t go to class.” Another student interviewed said of the violence against teachers, “To save face and to prove that they are stronger, pupils naturally react aggressively. What goes around comes around.”
School violence against women is particularly worrisome in the Middle East. This violence, which is perpetrated both by fellow students and by teachers, is largely verbal, moral, and sexual in nature. Assertive behavior that is met with severe punishment when perpetrated by boys is even less tolerated when it is perpetrated by girls. In Saudi Arabia, one girl was sentenced to 90 lashes and two months in prison after she hit her teacher on the head with a cup. The courts insisted that the lashes be administered in the classroom in the presence of the girl’s peers as a deterrent to bad behavior. While the global community has condemned the country’s use of corporal punishment in its schools, the Saudi government insists that such measures are widely approved within the country and help to prevent crime.
While efforts to train teachers and students in practices of gender equity and nonviolent conflict resolution have been proposed by organizations such as UNICEF, much progress remains to be made. Greg Mortenson, an American humanitarian and author of Three Cups of Tea, has founded an organization called the Central Asia Institute that has built more than 130 schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson has made one of his primary objectives the education of girls in particular, and is currently educating 58,000 students through Central Asia Institute schools.
One initiative, spearheaded by UNICEF, has been working to address all three forms of school violence discussed in this article. “Stopping Violence, Starting in Schools” was the title given to a live chat forum in which students from Tunisia, Yemen, Palestine, and Morocco were asked to respond to a series of questions regarding their experiences with school violence and their recommendations for change. In the ensuing dialogue, students talked about what they saw as underlying the violence in their schools and what they thought would be the most effective means for change. A summary of the students’ views follows:
Causes Underlying Violence in Middle Eastern Schools
- The style of corporal punishment, involving physical violence and public humiliation of student in front of peers, that is employed by teachers
- Lack of interest or ability on the part of the school administration to resolve the issues of school violence, as they seem to side with school personnel regardless of the circumstance
- Failure to enforce existing laws or rules in place regarding violence in school
- Lack of dialogue in schools about violence because the school has a tendency to downplay the existing violence
- Low socioeconomic status and family circumstances of students
- Violent environmental conditions, such as the presence of war
- According to the female students, being female, as they felt they were exposed to more violence than male students
- In schools where parents pay tuition, school personnel are more cautious in their use of violence against students
Student-Suggested Solutions to Violence in Middle Eastern Schools
- Punishment should not be employed as a form of discipline in schools, and there should be repercussions for teachers who employ violence in the classroom.
- The formation of participatory committees including parents, students and teachers would enable them to try to resolve the issue of violence in schools.
- Having trained teachers and psychologists to respond to conflicts and violence would be helpful.
- The formation of extracurricular clubs in sports or the arts would give students creative outlets as an alternative to violence.
- School structures should not be placed next to rivers and woods where gangs could be hiding.
- Rules regarding weapons, violence, and gang activity at the school must be consistently enforced.
- In countries with child parliaments, school violence could be addressed as an issue at a high political level.
Finally, students concluded that if children’s rights are not acknowledged in the Middle East, then the conversation about violence in schools is useless.
This conference, which was hosted by UNICEF, was intended as a precursor to an International Colloquium titled “Towards a School of Dialogue and Respect” that was held in Tunis. Based on its results, it would seem that students, parents, teachers, and administrators will need to engage in open dialogue about the sources of school violence in the Middle East before transformation in school violence can be accomplished.
- Clinton, C. (2002). A stone in my hand. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press
- IRIN. (2008). Middle East: UNRWA moves to combat violence in its schools. Retrieved from http://www.irinnews.org/Report/81666/MIDDLE-EAST-UNRWA-moves-to-combat-violence-in-its-schools
- Mortenson, G., & Relin, D. (2006). Three cups of tea. London: Penguin Books.
- Reuters. (2010). Teenager faces lashing for school violence. Retrieved from http://www.iol.co.za/news/world/teenager-faces-lashing-for-school-violence-1.471061