By: Kaveh Bevrani
Murdoch University, Perth Australia, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A recent Gallup survey has shown that Iranians, after Iraqis, are the second unhappiest people in the world (Richinick, 2015). The reasons can be attributed to a long history of living in oppressive environment, going through 8 years of brutal war from 1980 to 1988 with Iraq, male dominancy and patriarchy in the society, as well as a bleak future and chronic poverty. A societal view that granting freedom to individuals can create a risk of diversion from the “right way”, has created a culture of coercion in different levels of society from families, and schools to communities and public institutes. These societal view have created an environment that in it a person who is obedient, subordinate and compliant a ‘nice’ and ‘good’ person.
SAMHSA (2013) indicated that one of the consequences of oppression and historical trauma is lateral violence, that is when people who are victims of dominance turn on each other rather than confronting the oppressor. This occurs when oppressed groups or individuals internalize feelings, such as anger and rage, and demonstrate these emotions via other behaviours, such as bullying.
In environment like Iran where many people have been subjected to or witnessed severe and prolonged traumatic events, bullying seems irrelevant and trivial. This lack of awareness or oblivion of the impacts of bullying has resulted in the majority of parents, teachers and authorities to think that individuals themselves must grow out of bullying and the victim needs to toughen up. They perceive the effect of intimidation and bullying as a short term problem with temporary effects that over time will disappear. They are generally unaware of the seriousness and long term effect of bullying.
Violence among young people, including bullying, is more than just an aggression. It is a learned behaviour that takes place within the larger community. Numerous factors can result in bullying behaviour, namely, community environments; family dynamics; sectors of society that glorify violence; and, societies with past trauma (SAMHSA, 2013).
This article investigates the bullying problem within the Iranian society. For doing so, a power analysis is conducted to identify the domains that should be targeted in the strategies for change. The stakeholders in bringing about change in the attitude toward bullying in Iran are examined. This post sheds light on the importance of active citizenship for creating change in worldview, attitudes and beliefs of the society toward bullying. Eventually a strategy for the change toward bullying for the Iranians will be outlined along with a few specific tactics.
Mitchell (2012) identifies two key elements in many definitions of bullying which are ‘the presence of a power imbalance and the repeated or ongoing nature of the hostility’. Bullying is defined as a form of repeated aggression where there is an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim, through ‘physical, psychological, social, or systemic advantage, or by knowing another’s vulnerability (e.g., obesity, learning problem, sexual orientation, family background) and using that knowledge to cause distress.’
A worldview in Iran is that the bully (specially a subtle bullying types) is a smarter person, and it is an embarrassment to complain about the bully. There is little comprehension for the impact on the victims. Considering the fact that there is no general awareness on bullying and there are no policies in place to address bullying, it is expected that bullying in Iran is an epidemic. The issue therefore in this paper is how to change the attitude of Iranian society toward bullying.
Other than a very limited research in primary schools in Iran, there has not been any concrete large scale research to show the extent of bullying and its impact on the Iranian society. However living in Iran or observing media can clearly indicate a frequent occurrence of bullying very frequently, and lack of sensitivity from witnesses can be an indication of lack of awareness toward bullying. Meanwhile, statistics in Iran have shown increase in suicide attempts leading to death in the recent years amongst the youth.
To date, the languages spoken in Iran do not have a unified word that delivers the same meaning as bullying, as in English. There are words for intimidation, teasing, forcing someone to do something against their will, or abuse, however there is none that can deliver the exact same meaning as bullying. Hence, one issue is to create a word for bullying in the Iranian languages, so people will be able to name and shame it.
The psychological impacts of bullying on the victims are hidden and invisible. Usually the victims are suffering in isolation. There are a lot of bystanders and passive witnesses. Therefore, there is a huge psychological burden on victims, and detriment to their wellbeing. People in Iran similar to other countries can get bullied for their gender, ethnicity, race and looks, or anything else that is not based on their choice. However no significant actions exist in Iran against bullying.
The Iranian society has a hierarchical social structure, that is, the older person usually has to be respected, and obeyed. In that sense, the older person benefits from a protection of being held accountable for their actions just by being more senior. The real risk of being bullied also comes from peers and also people who possess a higher position and power in relation to the victim. For example, older brother has more power over younger siblings, men over women, smarter over slower person, bosses over employees. Unfortunately the general tendency is if the person speaks up and expresses that the bully’s act has offended him/her that would generally perceived as a weakness. If the victim turns to his/her parents for advice, their advice would usually be ‘just ignore it’ or ‘go and defend yourself’, ‘you could retaliate and fight back’. Therefore, the victim would not have much support, and the problem can go as far as the person’s withdrawal from their normal everyday activities.
It is difficult to bring about change in the education ministry and in school policies. The culture of dominance and coercion has also caused the authorities not to be ready to receive people’s thoughts and feedback to implement those in their policies, strategies and plan. On the other hand, people also are not generally aware of their rights as citizens and the power that exists in a collective act and groups. Lack of respect and valuing the rule of law in the society is the other major obstacle. Individual officials sometime undermine the rule of law. Governing via creating fear both within domestic and public sphere is a method that is being used to a certain extent. To create this fear, officials occasionally act in arbitrary and irresponsible ways, and it can be observed in administrations and institutes. Therefore, people finds that collective actions and creating pressure from the ground root levels, futile, as they are not living in an environment where law enforcement is much being respected.
Actors, organisations, institutions
According to Povilaitis & Bulotaite (2013), bullying is influenced by factors at four levels (see Figure 1):
- The individual level, biological factors, personality features and personal history.
- The relations with peers, family members and others.
- The community level as workplaces and educational settings; neighbourhoods.
- The societal level explores the cultural norms, attitudes and various policies (health, educational and others) that could create a favourable climate for bullying or minimize the probability of bullying.”
Figure 1: Ecological model for understanding violence from Krug et al. (Povilaitis & Bulotaite, 2013)
At the individual level, the bullied, the bully, and the bystander are the people who are directly involved in the bullying. At the next level, parents, teachers and school and community authorities and governmental bodies are also related and key stakeholders in providing support and awareness towards bullying. On the other hand, other NGOs in the community and society, such as disadvantaged groups, women groups, disabled groups, kids’ protection groups, and including the media can also have a very major role in raising awareness.
Research has also shown that gender is an important element in bullying. ‘Boys are more likely to engage in physical intimidation, while girls are more likely to use social exclusion to bully others’ (Mitchell, 2012).’
In terms of public sector organisations, the power lies with the ministers. The decision-making processes usually lack transparency and decisions are made behind closed doors. Therefore, to make changes to the current policies, it is important to meet with for example the education minister, and discuss the issue before any intervening actions can be possible.
Most of the public organisations in Iran are governed by older conservative elites. These people usually are not willing to undertake any radical change and usually their first reaction to challenging issues is denial. In a recent interview, Iranian minister for education who belongs to the same elite, in response to media’s report on students getting abused in Iranian schools said: “In our vast educational system across the country, there are only rare cases of corporal punishment of students by teachers and school authorities which is condemned. However, it is more appropriate instead of exaggeration and journalistic propaganda from the media, work toward finding ways to eliminate those rare physical punishment cases…(Qom-e-Farda, 2015)”. As it can be seen from his words, he minimises the abuse cases by saying that they are of rare occurrences. This is despite the case that, as witnessed by this paper’s author, himself, during the 90s in schools, physical abuse was frequently used in Tehran, the capital schools. Even, during a recent visit to Iran in 2015, a short conversation with a local teacher has revealed that he currently uses corporal punishment and still believed that he must use physical punishment for students to ensure they behave well.
It is similarly expected that in the case of bullying, providing only information will not lead to changing in attitudes and mindset of authorities. As discussed by Krznaric (2007), to overcome the culture of denial there is a need for: education and prevention about ‘passive bystanders’ and ‘compassion fatigue’; legal compulsion and enforcement, appeal to the good nature instead of using shame and blame; and channelled acknowledgement and minimising the cost for the authorities.
Iran is generally a male dominated society. Therefore, the power needs to be taken back from the male. There is a need to collaborate with women organisations on sharing efforts on empowering women and girls and educating men on women’s rights.
In the community, as the elders usually hold more power over the younger, there is a need to advocate for the young’s right and to gain respect in their domain. It is important to get the older generation on board, who holds power to fight bullying. In addition, it is also important to gain the support of religious groups and leaders, as Islam is already against and condemns teasing act. It is relatively easy to gain their support on this matter.
At the relational level, Mums and dads have the invisible power that can be utilised via parental groups. Mums and dads can be educated and made aware of cases of bullying and how to provide support and help for their children. The invisible power of parenting can help to tackle issues where a child is a bully in the community and schools.
Other indirect and hidden power also lies with, famous and inspiring people in the society such as CEOs or celebrities who can act and advocate against bullying; survivors who can share their stories. Providing information on how survivors can gain self-confidence can also realise the power from within. Other influential groups also include woman groups, disability groups, kids protection groups, and social media.
At the individual level, individuals can be empowered by participating in community activities where they develop a sense of belonging and love for the community, and therefore do not commit bullying towards others.
The bullied victims have power within to gain confidence and confront their bullies and resolve their cases. All the stakeholders have power with to act together in bringing about the change.
Theory of change
The assumption in the theory of change in this paper is that the Iranian public are generally unaware of the issue of bullying and the scale of its impact. It is also assumed that Iranian society’s worldview (shared attitudes and unconscious thoughts) that is shaped by conditional thinking, years of educations, media propaganda and social life, prevents them from empathising with the victims of bullying or taking action to support them because of the stigma that is attached to the victims.
According to (Krznaric, 2007), to change a worldview, it needs to be carried out through experience, empathy and long term education. Therefore it is assumed that asking individuals to recall an experience where they have been bullied could change their attitude. Raising voices of survivors with their personal stories and the impact on their life and creating documentaries on it could awaken empathy with the victims. Finally, communities, schools and parent groups can create pressure to encourage the education ministry to put policies in place to address bullying in schools.
Workplace bullying is another major issue that need to be tackled. Having a code of conduct is not common in Iranian organisations and institutes. It is assumed that through campaigns and lobbying, the major organisations can be persuaded to put in place code of conducts that addresses bullying and harassment in their organisation. Ministry of labour can also make it compulsory for firms to have policies in place.
The other key assumption is that raising awareness would also encourage more bystanders to take actions to intervene and support victims. Other interventions also can be implemented, namely, mass mobilisation through social campaign, and getting different NGOs on-board.
On the other hand, creating more resources, publications and pathways for people who experiencing bullying, can educate them about various options they have. This will help them to do not feel lonely and do not suffer in isolation.
The overarching objective of this paper’s strategy is changing the attitude of Iranian society toward bullying from denial, ignorance and passiveness toward taking action, shaming and condemning bullying as a harmful act and finally eliminating it.
Specific change goals are:
- To create and invent an appropriate terminology for bullying in the Iranian languages.
- To create a greater awareness and provide more information on the issue of bullying within the Iranian public.
- To engage the education ministry to create policies and educate their staff on tackling the issue of bullying in schools.
- To ensure that all the organisations and companies should learn about the benefits of implementing and adhering a code of conduct for their workplace.
- Through a variety of media forms, raising awareness about bullying over a long term of minimum 2 years.
- Establishing a reliable database and online resource for people to access information on bullying.
- Seeking the opinions of religious leaders, especially on where Islam stands on bullying and mobilise religious leaders to be on board against bullying in the society and advocate greater respect and equity.
- Meeting with officials from the Ministry of education to gain their support.
- Preparing training material to teach parents in school meeting about the consequences of bullying.
- Mass mobilisation and raising awareness through social media campaign.
- Publicising the traumatic experiences that victims are going through and why it is important to respect people’s dignity.
This paper illustrated that to bring about change in the attitude of Iranian society toward bullying, there is a need for establishment of NGOs that advocate for the identified strategies in this paper and implement the discussed tactics to pursue its objectives and goals.
The culture of denial found to be the major obstacle toward the change. Certain strategies have been discussed to overcome this challenge including creating grassroots pressure, lobbying, and raising awareness in the society. An absence of a culture of active citizenship and continuous participation in forming public policies found to be the reason for lack of policies and practices that address bullying, particularly at schools and workplaces.
The internet and social media found to be a very effective tool in raising awareness and unifying people and creating pressure from bottom to the top with the hope for more proactive policies in place.
Krznaric, R. (2007). How Change Happens: Interdisciplinary Perspectives for Human Development. Oxfam. Retrieved from https://books.google.com.au/books/about/How_Change_Happens.html?id=sfvDpbU0F9QC&pgis=1
Mitchell, J. (2012). The limits of anti-bullying legislation. OTTAWA. Retrieved from WWW. IMFCANADA.ORG
Povilaitis, R., & Bulotaite, L. (2013). Prevention of bullying in Lithuania. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion, 16(1), 28–41. doi:10.1080/14623730.2013.857826
Qom-e-Farda. (2015). فانی: تنبیه بدنی در مدرسه جرم است. پایگاه خبری تحلیلی قم فردا. Retrieved August 30, 2015, from http://www.qomefarda.ir/news/128926
Richinick, M. (2015). Iraq; Iran top world’s unhappiest countries list. Gallup. Retrieved August 30, 2015, from http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/iraq-the-worlds-most-unhappiest-country
SAMHSA. (2013). Bullying in Indian Country. tribal training and technical assistance center.
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