Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 February 2006
Issue No. 780
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A tale of two values

Societal values as a subject used to be a main concern to those in the fields of sociology, psychology and social work, writes Hoda Badran

Click to view caption
Cover of book by Mahmoud Abdel Fadil on socio-economic dichotomies in Egypt

The subject has recently become of interest to others including economists, intellectuals, business men and political scientists. Tarek Heggy, for example, who used to manage Shell Petroleum Company, addressed societal values in his paper published in the Middle East Media Research Institute in June 2004. He argued that the progress of nations is mostly the product of a value system, and he listed six basic values that characterize such a system.

The economist, Galal Amin, has also tried to show in his book, " Whatever happened to the Egyptians? ", the changes that have recently occurred in the Egyptians' behavior as a result of a changing value system. Amin resorted to his childhood memories to illustrate the changes and concluded "everything is gradually being turned into a commodity, the object of a commercial transaction, including man's very soul". Others underlined the role of globalization in universalizing certain cultural aspects and bringing about changes in the value systems of different countries throughout the whole world. The emerging neo- social Darwinism ideology justified the increased gap between the rich and the poor brought by the transnational economy, allowing policies that keep some groups in poverty despite the possession of the means and methods to prevent that .

The gap between the rich and the poor in Egypt has not only become wide economically, but the two groups have also become widely segregated from each other in terms of their sets of values and styles of life. Values are developed by a process of learning from others with whom one associates. The home is the great teacher of human values together with the school, the mosque, the movies, the club and other social institutions. Everyone and every group has a system of values which is determined by the interaction of these institutions in the home environment. What follows is a discussion of the difference in value systems between the rich and the poor in relation to the home environment, the family and the school, casting light on certain changes that occurred over time within these values.

Some time ago, rich urban Egyptians used to select their homes in communities close to the Nile, with wide streets and a quiet atmosphere. They preferred to live in their own villas with enough space, green yards and privacy. Increasing congestion in the cities has led to the development of new communities on the outskirts of the big cities. These communities are surrounded by high walls that, together with their prohibitively high prices, segregate them from others. In this home environment privacy is a value on all levels. No intruders can enter these compounds without previous notice. A private garden surrounds each villa, and children have their own rooms for study and for sleeping. Sports is another important value for the rich. Therefore, private and public swimming pools are available as well as variety of other sports facilitates. Part of the value system of the rich is to spend the summer in an owned villa in one of the new resorts built on the northern coast of Egypt. Another villa on the Red Sea is used during the winter. Spending part of the summer outside Egypt has also become also part of the value system of the rich who sometimes have their own properties in different parts of Europe.

The poor live in a completely different home environment with a different set of values. They find a place to live either in the downtown disadvantaged neighborhood or in an unplanned shantytown, often established without official permission. Space is limited and privacy is not a value, and the narrow streets are an extension of the home. The noises coming out of the small repair workshops and the factories spreading in these areas, plus the shouting of the neighbors fighting teach the poor the value of speaking in a loud voice. Whether in the urban disadvantaged areas or in the villages, the poor can hardly include cleanliness in their value system. To them the garbage, the polluted water and pools of standing sewage are parts of a normal dirty living conditions. While in the past many rich families used to be big landowners with country houses in their villages, the land is no longer of a high value either to the "old" nor to the "newly" rich. On the other hand, the poor villagers who emigrated as laborers to the Gulf countries are buying land upon their return to gain esteem in their villages.

The family is a great teacher of human values of both the rich and the poor, but it teaches a different set for each.. Rich families no longer yearn for a large number of children. They have a low infant and children mortality rate due to their awareness of the value of health and their use of health services. Rich families usually represent the traditional model with the father as a provider, the mother as the home keeper and the children to be taken care of until they finish schooling. While the rich always had servants to help with housework, it is becoming part of their value system nowadays to import helpers usually from Asian countries. Children from rich families interact with the outside world and with outside values very early in life through the internet, where they can make friends, buy commodities and services, and get information.

On the other hand poor families still value large number of children, have a higher child mortality rate and are less aware of the value of health. They will only seek health services when they get very sick.

Discrimination against girls of poor families starts very early in life where boys are more valued and feel superior than their sisters. Both sexes, however, may enter the labor market during their childhood. Work instead of schooling has its own value. The traditional model of the family is changing, where it is estimated that about 20 percent of the poor families are headed and provided by the women. This change in roles has created a great tension in the family, and the value of the patriarchal system is being threatened. Certain family values such as the great respect for the aged, particularly parents, are changing. Recently violence and crimes undertaken by members of the family against each other including siblings, parents and grandparents are on the increase.

Schools are important official agencies for passing on prevailing values, and education has its own value for the Egyptians particularly for the poor who consider it the means for upwards social mobility. However, the types of schools which the children of the poor attend are different from the ones attended by the rich. The difference is not only in the terms of buildings and facilities or text books, but also in terms of values transmitted by the teachers and the prevailing relationships inside and outside the class. Unfortunately education as a value has been recently affected by the rising rate of unemployment among university graduates. As already mentioned, some poor families are sending their children to work instead of schooling. Girls are usually the first to forgo education.

These are some examples of the difference in the sets of values between the rich and the poor and some changes that have recently occurred for the sets of values for both.

The situation as such cannot be left without a strategy of intervention to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor in terms of their values. To discuss the components of such a strategy needs another article but the system of education is the important point of entry for the change.

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