Gender roles and norms around the world are changing rapidly. That is also the case in the Middle East, where the once-pivotal role of father as provider and head of the family is undergoing a dramatic transformation.
A study conducted with my colleagues at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research revealed significant differences in fathers’ involvement across the region and a change over time in the role Arab fathers play in their children’s lives. It also demonstrated the important impact that involvement has on the self-esteem and educational attainment of children throughout their lives.
During earlier research I conducted on boys’ underachievement in the United Arab Emirates, I observed the phenomenon of the “weekend father,” who is away all week for work in another city and only home on the weekend. I wondered if perhaps fathers’ diminished presence in their children’s lives, and in particular in the lives of their sons, could explain the relatively poor academic performance of boys across the Middle East—a region characterized by some of the world’s largest reverse gender gaps in academic achievement, with girls outperforming boys in major international assessments such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS. (See a related article, “Looking at Arab Education Through PISA Tests,” and commentary, “Does Cognitive Science Hold the Solution for the Arab Education Lag?”)
To find out, my colleagues and I surveyed approximately 2,000 adults across 10 countries in the Middle East to ask them about their fathers’ involvement in their lives and education while they were growing up. We then followed up this survey with around 75 in-depth life-history interviews.
Through our research we found a father’s involvement was an important factor in a child’s educational experiences in a number of ways.
First, we found that the more a father was perceived as being positively involved in his child’s life growing up, the higher the self-esteem that child reported as an adult.
Second, in terms of education, we found that participants who had the lowest levels of self-esteem also were more likely to have lower levels of education. In particular, there was a significant difference between those at the top and bottom of the self-esteem spectrum, with those at the lower end more likely to only have a high-school diploma or less. This is consistent with the wider self-esteem literature, which also confirms a link between self-esteem and academic achievement, although the exact direction of this link is not clear.
Third, also related to education, we found significant differences within the region in terms of fathers’ involvement in education, with fathers from the Levant and North Africa being more involved in the schooling of their children than fathers from the Gulf nations. The latter were more likely to take their child on an outing or to the hospital than to visit their school.
From the interviews, we realized that there was also a generational divide. In the pre-oil generation, in the Gulf in particular, children had far more daily contact with their fathers.
In the past, Gulf fathers would work side by side with their sons, usually in the family business, in farming or trade. But this became far less common after the discovery of oil, which heralded new work opportunities for men, in the military, the police and in the expanding civil-service sector.
Fathers, particularly in the Gulf, began to leave home for work. This left mothers more responsible for the upbringing and education of children, both girls and boys. However, in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s gender-segregated school system, this often meant that boys’ education was neglected, as fathers were too busy or not available for parent-teacher nights or other school activities that typically were intended for men.
Many men from the Levant and North Africa also went to the Gulf to pursue work opportunities. While they were often able to bring their families, the children most often returned to their home country to pursue their higher education, staying with relatives there.
In short, our research confirmed that fathers’ involvement in the Middle East matters, and that the effects of positively involved Arab fathers on the self-esteem and educational attainment of their children should not be underestimated.
For policy makers, key takeaways from these findings include the need for more support for fathers both at the beginning of their children’s lives, in the form of greater access to paternity leave, and continuing support for fathers to be able to be more active participants in their children’s education and upbringing.
Fathers should be encouraged and given time to attend parent-teacher meetings, to read to their children and to spend as much quality time as possible with their children, both boys and girls. Mothers should also be encouraged and invited to be more involved in their sons’ education, whether the boys are in single-sex or co-educational schools.
In addition, there needs to be particular support for low-income fathers who struggle the most with the competing demands of economic provision and fathering, often working long hours and sometimes in other locations, either outside or within the home country.
Laws that require males to be the primary provider also need to be re-examined in the light of the many more women in the region who are working. This would both allow and encourage women to contribute equally to household expenses.
Greater efforts should be made to deal with the chronic lack of information that we have about fathers, and about the family as a whole, in the Middle East. As societies change and gender roles shift, there is an urgent need to better understand the experiences and impact that fathers have in order to ensure that future generations are well-adjusted, thriving members of society.
Natasha Ridge is executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, in Ras Al Khaimah, and the author of Education and the Reverse Gender Divide in the Gulf States: Embracing the Global, Ignoring the Local.