In Bullying Around the World

Bullying in Saudi Arabia: A Cultural Overview

Bullying is a worldwide issue that our classrooms are infested with. Since the phenomenon depends on various cultural and social factors, the numbers and the percentages tend to differ from one country to another. Statistics have a lot to say, but they don’t always draw the most accurate of pictures. In this article we will attempt to study the status quo of bullying in Saudi Arabia. Through numbers and stories, we hope to shed the light on a problem often overlooked or trivialized, and perhaps that will help parents, teachers, and decision makers in the kingdom in finding solutions.

Types of Bullying in Saudi Arabia

Almost all schools in the kingdom are segregated based on gender: as in, girls only schools and boys only schools. This can be an interesting factor to consider as we study the types of bullying arising in such environments. According to a study on middle school students in Riyadh, various types of bullying in Saudi Arabia have been observed.

Verbal Bullying

Tribalism and nationalities play a huge role in how children (and adults) identify in the kingdom, and similarly in the way they form cliques. That is why verbal bullying in Saudi Arabia tends to address such differences and can have a racially prejudiced nature. Children would jump to defend each other based on their belonging to the same tribe, and in the same sense they would stigmatize another child for being a foreigner, or coming from an opposing tribe. Name calling, beside the typical abusive swear words, can also include racial slurs. Using skin color and country of origin to demean is prevalent. For example, words like “Ta’meya” and “Tabouleh” are used to refer to Egyptian and Lebanese schoolmates, respectively, since these foods signify where they come from.

Physical Bullying

Students trip, kick, and bunch each other. What may start as rough play, usually ends in big fights. These sort of incidents are usually ignored by school officials because “boys will be boys,” which contributes into making the problem worse. There’s also a culture that glorifies masculinity and preserving honor, which makes violent retaliations a natural consequence in boys schools.

On the other hand, among girls, physical bullying also occurs: hair pulling and hitting, in addition to intimidation and threats of physical violence. This tends to happen through groups of 6-7 girls who use their numbers to terrorize other girls. Such groups (or gangs), called “Boyaat,” which is a reference to their members being tomboyish, are usually too much trouble that even the school officials, according the study, try to avoid them.

Emotional Bullying and Sexual Assault

Students threaten each other and use privileges given to them by teachers to establish a position of dominance among their peers. A culture of gossip and rumor mongering also prevails among girls. As for sexual harassment, according to the study, sexual comments are made, usually restricted to bathrooms where children can evade the watchful eyes of their teachers.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Saudi culture isn’t open to differences in sexual orientation or gender representation. Homosexuality is not only stigmatized, but persecuted. LGBT students thus live secretive lives where they have to conceal their identity to fit. “Gay,” “Lesbian” or any reference to a student’s engagement in a sexual activity are usually used as slurs to demean and shame.

Violence in Saudi Schools and Universities

Bullying in Saudi Arabia is not restricted to peer-on-peer violence, and neither is it to schools. There are incidents where teachers are bullied by their students, or cases of bullying resulting in serious injuries among university students. There’s an overall increase in juvenile crime rates. A group of women in Al-Jouf University have started a fist-fight with another group that they claimed were bullying them. With no intrusion from security guards or university officials whatsoever, the fight resulted in one student falling unconscious and was eventually sent to the hospital.

According to AlArabiya Middle East, “[…] in Jazan, a secondary school teacher was killed in a student attack, while a teacher was assaulted in Makkah and another was attacked in a secondary school in Dammam. Security officers in Jeddah also detained four students for attempting to set their school on fire.”

Teachers too can be bullies. Using offensive language, screaming and yelling at their students, they can be partially to blame for the overall aggression of the youth. Classes can often hold up to 50 students, resulting in heated, loud, and angry spaces, where both students and teachers are on edge.

Cyber Bullying in Saudi Arabia

Given the value the Saudi community lays on women’s honor, it comes as no surprise that cyber bullying would predominately be in the form of blackmail and spreading rumors, especially on women. Girls schools are free spaces where students, teachers, and school officials are all female, which allows them to dress freely, expose their hair, and use makeup if they so wish. It is an outlet for female students to feel feminine and beautiful, and brag about their new haircut or the fancy dress they just got, something they can’t do in streets, malls, or public parks. Enter camera phones. It is very easy to snap pictures and then later use them to blackmail, humiliate, or expose a girl.

There’s also the typical use of swear words, mocking, and abusive comments on social media. Recently though, the ministry of interior has opened its website to receive complaints of cyber bullying, harmful comments, or offensive language on the Internet. This is both a good and a bad thing. It can serve as a deterrent to cyber bullies; but it can also be used to constrain personal freedoms, since the rules and laws of the kingdom are against any form of communication between the sexes outside family circles and the bonds of marriage.

Causes of Bullying in Saudi Arabia

According to the 2015 study, many factors contribute to the problem. Many of which will be discussed in the following:

  • Lack of Security on Campus:
    Students suffer from the lack of proper support and protection. Teachers and school officials don’t provide a secure environment where student can feel safe enough to report incidents of bullying. Every child has to defend him/herself, or seek the help of another school bully (or Boya).
  • The Teachers Are Afraid Too:
    Teachers reported worrying about the consequences of getting involved with the bullies or their parents. Since parents can often be aggressive and refuse to understand, it can cause the teacher a lot of trouble if they reprimand or attempt to correct a bully.
  • Lack of Awareness and Consistent Policies:
    The teachers who choose to get involved often lack the proper awareness to do it successfully. The policies to deal with the problem are inconsistent and each teacher handles it on their own.
  • Lack of Motivation
    Some students lack the motivation to learn, and so they wreck havoc because they have no other outlet for their energy. Additionally, school hours are exclusive to education. The lack of recreational motivational activities causes boredom and frustration, which eventually encourages the children to act out.
  • Bad Communication
    There’s little to no communication between school officials and parents, teachers and students, and students and parents. Due to this gap in understanding, many parties resort to just blaming the other for the problem.

In 2013, a survey was conducted among 12.757 students in a one-month sample period. The results revealed that 50% of said students were victims of bullying. Dr. Maha Al-Muneef, chief of the National Family Safety Program (NFSP), has disclosed efforts to propose a legalization that would require schools in the kingdom to recognize bullying and deal with it as a nationwide issue.

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