Thursday, 15 May 2008

a failed example of cross-cultural parenting

i came across this bit of news trawling through the blogosphere today. it's about an assyrian christian man convicted of hitting his 20-year old daughter because she was dating a muslim. the standard goes off on a bit of a tangent, relating it to the repeal of s59 and what might have happened had the girl been 15. not to say that it's not an important discussion, but there are other issues that this incident raised for me.

foremost is the control issue. the father in this situation wanted to control his daughter's behaviour, in that he didn't want her seeing a muslim boy. [i can think of several muslim fathers who would react in a similar fashion in a vice versa situation, as well as fathers of other religious persuasion; so the particular religion is not at issue here.] under a western construct, this is extremely unacceptable behaviour in that she is deemed to be an adult and has the right to see who she pleases. after a certain age, parents lose authority and their children gain freedom. that seems to happen somewhere between 16 and 18.

under more eastern values, the honour of the family is vitally important. also important is that all members stay within their religious boundaries, and maintain the value system inherent in that religion. which usually means you don't marry (or date) anyone out of it.

also, under an eastern construct, parents don't lose authority over or responsiblity for their children at any given age. parental authority lasts until the death or incapacity of the parent. respect for elders, and especially parents and grandparents, is an ingrained and deeply rooted value that is common across most of asia, africa and the middle east. [of course i generalise. individual families or regions may behave differently, but on the whole this is a common way of thinking.]

looking through a western lens, i can see how dictatorial and restrictive this kind of culture seems. it's supposed to work because parents will always want what's best for their children. no parent wants to see her/his child unhappy. also, parents have the benefit of a few more years of experience, hence are better placed to make the right decisions. or so the conventional wisdom goes.

this particular parent was not simply concerned with the family honour. he also had concerns about his child and grandchildren being brought up outside their faith. the article mentions excommunication, which would indicate that he would fear an eternity in hell for his daughter. i'm sure if this man chose to speak publicly, he would say that he was acting in the best interests of his daughter. and he would genuinely believe it too.

i know i've ignored, uptil now, the violence. let me say it's totally unacceptable, and get that out of the way. not because it's unimportant, but because it's the attitudes behind the violence that i'm trying to get a handle on.

i think of my own children. people often ask me what i'd do if they decided to go out with a non-muslim. of course i'd be disappointed, there's no doubt about that. probably upset as well. but i know there are things i definitely wouldn't do. i would never hit them. i'd explain how i felt, but i would never cut them off or refuse to see them. i wouldn't stop loving them.

then there would be the issue of dating. it's just not something i'm comfortable with. i know i'd be worried about things like teen pregnacy, sexual abuse or just pressure to do things they weren't ready to do. i'd be worried about them being taken advantage of; of being used and discarded. a firm proposal of marriage i can deal with, but dating is something alien and scary; not of my world.

i guess as a parent, you always fear the worst and want to protect your children from it. but it's very easy to shift from protection to stifling control. on the other hand, it's hard to sit back and do nothing, when you see your child do something that you personally think will lead to disaster.

it's all so difficult. and it's very difficult for migrant parents to let go of all the values, the culture, the family structures and methods of parenting they bring with them from their countries of origin. for some, it's a seismic shift in thinking, and they don't manage it well. if you don't believe me and you're not a migrant, imagine having to change your way of thinking so that you fit into the eastern paradigm i've outlined above.

so how do we protect the children and the young women? how do we make that transition easier, so that there is less friction, and hence less violence? we could take the extreme option and restrict immigration to those countries with similar cultural values to ours. let's call it the nz first option, for simplicity. it's an option that is simple, and involves very little cost and effort on our part, other than tightening the laws and policies around immigration and border control.

another option is to require migrants to undertake some education around nz culture, either before they arrive or as soon as they get here. i'm not talking about those stupid, simplistic tests that australia and some european countries have implemented. people just memorise the answers, but the test doesn't deepen understanding, it doesn't help to shift ingrained attitudes. i can't think of anything positive that is achieved.

i'm talking of something like the kiwi ora programme, which used to be run by te wananga o aotearoa. say a course that involved 6-8 sessions, one a week, with a bit of homework thrown in. at least that would help migrants to better understand the country they're coming into. it would make them aware of the kinds of problems that arise. and it might present them with some strategies to deal with those problems. non-violent strategies.

more important though, is interaction between migrants and residents. the kids get the interaction when they're at school. the parents may get some interaction at work, but how meaningful that is depends on the place of work. it's only by interacting, by discussing and debating, through stories and shared experiences, that cultural change can be made a less stressful process. it means people have to take the trouble to get to know each other.

do we want to put that effort? if we don't, then i'd have to concur with paul morris when he said "the rapidly increasing religious and cultural diversity in New Zealand meant such cases were bound to increase."


Amanda said...

This is a really interesting and thoughtful post. I think it's very valuable for me, and probably others too, to hear a nuanced perspective from "the other side" as it were. It's very easy as a Westerner to make sweeping blanket judgments about other cultures, and the people from them, but also very wrong. I try not to myself but reading this from you helps me to keep the complexity of individual motivation and of mutual cultural adjustment to the forefront of my thinking.

Julie said...

Anjum this is a great post, thank you for contributing it.

On the issue of interaction between immigrants and other residents, I wonder about the tension that must arise when one partner has a job, and is thus possibly further along with working out how things work here, while the other is struggling to find opportunities outside the home. It must be hard when not only the children are encountering and becoming used to the different ways here, but also the other partner. I would feel very isolated and probably afraid in that situation myself.