When 11-year-old Islam â€˜Amr Badr turned up to school on a winter morning last year in the northern Egyptian city of Alexandria, no one would have guessed that failing to do his math homework would cost him his life.
Math teacher Heitham Nabil ‘Abd Al-Hamid, 23, took the young boy outside the classroom and hit him violently in the stomach, breaking four of his ribs. The boy fainted, and died later in hospital of heart failure.
The teacher was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in jail. He insisted he only meant to discipline the child.
Badr’s sad story is exceptional in its severity, but the use of force on schoolchildren is not uncommon in this part of the world.
The practice of inflicting pain or humiliation on schoolchildren is widespread in many Middle Eastern countries and children’s rights groups fear cases such as Badr’s could be repeated if the problem is not addressed quickly.
Corporal punishment is believed by many to be an effective tool of discipline. Generations of remarkable people throughout history were educated by use of physical punishment and achieved great accomplishments.
Nowadays, the practice is banned in schools in most Western countries, as other methods of discipline are being incorporated and considered more effective and less harmful, both physically and psychologically.
But banning the practice in the Middle East has proved to be a difficult task. Child-rights activists are not only fighting an uphill battle against years of educational habits, but also against religious and cultural norms that are invoked to defend the practice.
Activists say common physical punishments meted out to schoolchildren in the MENA region include hitting a child with a stick, a ruler or a belt; enclosing a child in a room for a whole day without food or water; having children kneeling in a corner, and hitting them in the face.
There are even cases where children have lost an eye, or in more extreme cases, there has been physical abuse that has led to untimely death, as with ‘Amr Badr.
The MENA region is fraught with violence, whether through wars among nations, civil wars or clan-based battles over religion, power or resources. Experts say this makes the societies themselves more violent, and perhaps pushes issues such as the banning of corporal punishment down the list of national priorities.
Not Enforced at Home
While corporal punishment is banned in around half of the Arab countries (see table below), one of the problems in enforcing the prohibition is that it is often not banned in the home or within the community. This sends the child a mixed message as to what is considered an acceptable form of discipline, and also erodes the standing of the teacher in the classroom.
"Having legislation is important," says Jumaneh Zabaneh, regional program manager for education for the MENA region with Save the Children-Sweden, "but it’s not at all an indicator as to whether it’s happening or not."
Even in Middle East countries where corporal punishment in schools is prohibited by law, there are no efforts to put other disciplinarian alternatives in place, she says.
Teachers often think that because corporal punishment is banned, it will directly result in low achievement in the classroom.
"They link poor performance with the fact that the government has introduced this law," Zabaneh says. "This is because the law is not accompanied by any capacity-building in alternative tools of discipline for the teachers. Either they hit the kids, or there’s a complete mess in the classroom."
The result is often low-quality teaching, she says, because the teacher loses control over the classroom.
"They ask for support because they don’t know how to do it in a different way."
In Lebanon, Save The Children personnel working with a focus group that included teachers from rural areas were sent a government memo asking them to refrain from hitting children.
"The following year the overall average of children in that region was the lowest in the country and teachers blamed it on the decree," Zabaneh says.
In March, 1,500 delegates from the Arab world gathered in Riyadh for a regional conference on child protection. They agreed that corporal punishment in schools should be banned and children should be taught their rights in the classroom.
It was also recommended that corporal punishment should not only be prohibited in classrooms, but also discouraged in homes and communities
But Zabaneh says that unlike the practice in most Western countries, Arab countries lack systems to protect children and teach them their rights, such as a hotline in case they are in distress.
"There are no national protection systems in general," Zabaneh says. "It comes as a decision at the school level, but it’s not backed by any decision at home or in the community. The school is just one setting and you need to work on all fronts."
The introduction of legislation against corporal punishment in the Middle East is fairly new. In many cases the problems begin in teacher-training schools, where issues of disciplining children are not properly addressed.
An exception is Yemen, where the Ministry of Education has developed a manual on alternatives to corporal punishments which is currently being field tested.
Countries embroiled in political conflicts tend to display more violence in schools, experts say.
A case in point is the Gaza Strip, a flashpoint of inter-Palestinian clashes and conflict with Israel.
Muhammad, an English teacher at a secondary school in Dir Al-Balah in the Gaza Strip, says corporal punishment is applied, but only for bad behavior, not as punishment for slow academic achievement.
"Especially in Gaza, children are a bit violent because of the political and economic situation. Families here are disappointed that this is reflected in their children… there is a lot of violence among the children."
Muhammad says that when corporal punishment is used, it will usually involve a slap over the hands, but will not involve the child’s head or body.
"As to me, I generally don’t like physical punishment in schools, but sometimes you are obliged when a student causes harm to a peer and you need to punish him to end this," he says.
Parents of children who are physically punished in schools are usually understanding, Muhammad says, because they know it will make them study harder.
If the punishments are more severe than normal, the parents will sometimes complain, but when they come to the school and talk to the teachers, the parents will frequently see things from the teacher’s perspective and end up apologizing, he says.
The exceptions are when a parent views a teacher as being affiliated with a rival political party, either Fatah or Hamas, and the parents will not accept their child being punished by a teacher opposed to their views.
One of the problems in banning corporal punishment in schools is that it can contradict entrenched religious and cultural norms in the region, which maintain that children should obey their parents and the elderly.
Zabaneh says all three religions prevalent in the region – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – have texts that are often interpreted as encouraging physical punishment to children.
Dr. Muhammad Sarag, an expert on Islamic law at the American University in Cairo, says that according to Shari’a, Islamic law, a child committing an offense is not liable for punishment.
"There’s a tradition ascribed to the prophet to this effect, so basically they cannot be held liable for their actions," he says.
As to punishment in schools, Sarag says Islamic principles need to be interpreted according to the culture and the setting, while still keeping the interests of the child in mind.
"From an Islamic perspective, Muslims have to set a good example for their children," Mohsen Haredy, acting managing editor of the Reading Islam website, told The Media Line.
"Islam looks at the use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline, and not a form of punishment or a show of resentment. If a parent uses physical discipline, it has to be a last resort, when all other means prove to be of no avail."
He adds that Muslims living in a non-Muslim context need to be aware of applying violence to their children, as the authorities may take their children away from them.
"The Prophet is reported to have said, ‘teach your children to pray when they are seven; hit them, if they don’t [pray], when they reach 10.’ Therefore, physical discipline comes as the last resort and when it is applied, parents have to avoid the face, sensitive areas and private parts. They should be careful not to leave any marks or cause any pain."
Haredy quoted the 14th-century Muslim sociologist Ibn Khaldoun, who said, "The one who was brought up by violence and submission… [will be] displeased, inactive and lazy. It will force him to lie and be cunning for fear of hands stretching to subdue him. It will teach him trickery and deception, which will become habits and will spoil his humanity."
Zabaneh said getting religious figures on board has been very beneficial for the campaign.
"In Yemen, we’ve used many imams to speak about it in mosques and elsewhere in the region in churches. Sometimes, speakers don’t have religious status but they are religious and respected by the community, so we bring them to support what we’re doing," he said.
Zabaneh said there was increased awareness in society, which has caused more civil society movements and international NGOs to work on the issue of corporal punishment and pressure governments to at least get more legislation in place.
Table summarizing legislation against corporal punishment in Arab and Muslim countries and regions*
Country/region Prohibited in Homes Prohibited at School
Algeria No Yes
Afghanistan No No
Bahrain No Yes
Comoros No No
Djibouti No [Yes] –unconfirmed
Egypt No Yes
Iraq No Yes
Iran No Yes
Jordan No Yes
Kuwait No Yes
Lebanon No No
Libya No Yes
Mauritania No No
Morocco No No
Oman No Yes
Palestinian Authority No Yes – in UNRWA schools
Pakistan No No
Qatar No No
Saudi Arabia No No
Somalia No No
Sudan No Partial
Syria No No
Tunisia No No
United Arab Emirates No Yes
Yemen No Yes
*Based on data compiled by the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, updated to March 2009