A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Study That Goes Where Angels Fear to Tread

Most of us are aware of the sort of heavily funded study that comes out telling us something everyone already knew, and resent it if they had more funding than we do, but sometimes someone genuinely produces a study which, if fairly intuitive in its content, does say what most are reluctant to say, does go where angels fear to tread. The Population Reference Bureau has just come out with a study entitled, "Facts of Life: Youth Sexuality and Reproductive Health in the Middle East and North Africa," by Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi and Shereen El Feki. The link goes to the press release/summary page; the whole report (PDF) is available here.

No one familiar with the region will fail to recognize the problem. A fifth of the Middle Eastern population is between 15 and 24; in many countries half the population is under 25; in most, it's at least under 30. The phenomenon of "Arab Spring" is in part the result of the frustrations of young people who do not remember their previous President or King; who are educated beyond any of their forebears but despite university degrees have few job prospects; who, in a society where youthful marriage was once universal, must defer marriage because they cannot afford an apartment or setting up on their own. Everyone knows this, and everyone also knows, but few talk openly about, the fact that deferred marriage in a society in which sex outside of marriage remains a major taboo adds an additional layer of frustration. An increasing religious conservatism in the past few decades has actually closed outlets that may have existed a generation or more ago.

I'm pleased to see that two female scholars of Middle Eastern background have been willing to go there.  They are not preaching promiscuity or advocating a Middle Eastern Woodstock; rather they are noting that there is a woeful lack of education among young people, especially young women, to the extent that even the onset of one's first period comes as a crisis. All this seems obvious enough, and given the constraints of a conservative society, it is probably better to advocate greater education rather than greater freedom, though the two may not be unrelated.

Unfortunately, the title itself may prove more polarizing than it should. Religious conservatives will oppose the very idea of the study, or portray it as an attempt to intrude Western mores into the Muslim world; many young women will shy away from the subject altogether, considering it taboo; and sadly, too many single young men will snigger and try to find "the good parts" of the report. (There aren't any.) Over this and the coming years, however, we are going to see a lot more discussion of the role of the youth in not only the Arab revolutions but the economic and social problems that confront the region. This study reminds us what we all once knew: that for the adolescent and young adult prior to marriage, social and economic issues are not the only, or even perhaps the central, issue on their minds.

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