13 December 2006

What is The Status of Women in Jordan?

Today in class a British student asked the teacher about the status of women in Jordan. Frequently students in my class will ask the teacher their culture questions, and she is very indulgent with us. The student who asked about women told me that she has been having problems with men in Jordan, and she ended her thoughts by saying, “I feel like a prisoner in my own house; every time I go out men stare and honk the horn at me and say terrible things to me.” She repeated this to our teacher. Let me say, for purposes of disclosure, that this student wears clothing that I think is provocative for Jordan. While it is de jure in England or the States, I don’t see many women dressed like her, not even at the University. That said, both her and I are tired of men’s horney-ness being our burden.

Our teacher told her that how men see her is up to her. She said that women have to carry themselves in such a way that our very body language dissuades men from saying inappropriate things. She also said that it’s important to dress “appropriately,” read: modestly. Of course, what is modest in the UK and what is modest in Jordan seems to be very different. I don’t think that Western women can have it both ways. Either we wear clothing here that we would not necessarily wear at home, or we are apt to endure more harassment. I too find it frustrating sometimes. When it was still very hot here a German woman asked me why I wear long-sleeved, collared shirts. It seemed like such a stupid question to me. Last time I checked, Jordan was a Muslim country. While I can eat a Big Mac here, I’m still not in Los Angeles, I’m in Jordan. I’ve been here just over 3 months, and I dress more modestly than I do in the States, and I have had only 2 problems with men, and both were more amateur and amusing than frightening. I’ve never actually felt threatened here. Still, it does weigh on me that men seem to wear what they want, and I can’t, and when a man pulls his car up to me and asks me to fuck him, the reaction of Jordanian women has overwhelmingly been to ask me what I may have done to provoke this. This was relayed to our teacher, and she responded by declaring that the onus is still on us as women. Like it or not.

This seemed to be a catalyst for another female student to ask her why women don’t go out much. This student said that she has never seen a woman playing soccer at the University, and she rarely sees women downtown after dark, and for that matter women don’t seem to occupy many professional roles in Jordan. Our teacher seemed to appreciate the candor, and she said that “in these Modern Times” girls don’t go out and play as much as they used to because “…the world is more dangerous.” She said that women have a lot to do at home for their families, and they don’t have the leisure time to cruse around downtown like the young men do. I found it interesting that she blamed the phenomenon on modernization rather than sexism. That seems like a mostly reasonable argument to me, but I still think there is plenty of sexism here. She did say that women always do more than men, and she looked at me (the only other married person in the room besides her), and said, “You know this is true, right?” I burst out laughing as the other (younger) students looked confused. Sexism certainly isn’t unique to Jordan. I am beginning to think that we become acclimatized to our own cultural brand of sexism, and we internalize it and see it as rational, natural and acceptable to a certain extent. When we confront a different cultural version, it’s shocking to us. I will admit, the extent to which the differences between men and women are invented and naturalized does shock me. Still, while I have adopted a different wardrobe, and I think that sucks, I know there is a trade off. I’m much less likely to incur violence at the hands of a man here than in the States.

What I’m having trouble analyzing is how much are this students (or my) problems with men attributable to the fact that we are foreigners. I don’t know sometimes if men stare at me because I am a female who goes downtown alone, and this is a novelty, or because I am a foreigner downtown. Probably all of the above.

And, I don’t even mind any more that people stare. What does make me uncomfortable is how other women will question my sexual morality, or that of my husband. The first time a woman here asked me if my husband will be unfaithful to me this year, I was dumbfounded. No one would ever ask this question in the States! Or, if an American asked me that, I doubt she or he would expect an answer. There seems to be a “well, men are like that…” attitude here that I don’t understand. I found myself shocked at how often women here will ask me about sex. I thought Americans talked about sex a lot, but I’m beginning to think that Americans have nothing on Jordanians. I guess everything is a trade off.



Anonymous kinzi said...

Well, Frances, somehow I didn't get that you were another married California-girl ex-pat on Jordan Planet!

Nice post. After a decade in Jordan, I've come to some conclusions about the staring/comments thing. I just decided to live with it, don't let it touch my soul, dress modestly (longer sleeves and skirts, not tight nor revealing) and not worry about sending some guy to hell because I look too good. It's up to him to control his thoughts if I'm not provoking excess attention.

But, I also don't go walking. I really miss not being able to walk or ride a bike. No that I could get up half these hills :)

6:50 PM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

The trouble is, where do you draw the line from wearing long-sleeved shirts in respect for local custom, to the quaint custom of stoning women in bloody sports stadiums?

Maybe it is possible to draw a bright line between acceptable conduct and abuse. The sliding hemline length scale may create superficial differences, but the problem is there, across all cultures. Women the world over hear the same music of a universal dance: one step forward, two steps back. And we all rationalize our own submission as superior to some other woman's compromise.

It may also be possible for women all over the globe to unite and stop letting the boys crap in the sandbox like their mothers have all permitted all these centuries. Take your best shot, because the men are ruining the world. You know this is true, right?

8:35 PM  
Blogger Anonima said...

I agree with most of what you said.

Strangely, I do relate to changing your wardrobe in order to feel more secure.

Although I am Jordanian, and I've always lived here, but I did have to make a drastic change in the way I dress the minuit I started going to classes in the University. I just feel more comfortable if I wear something "modest", not at all attention grabbing, bland, and somehow covering most of what I can cover. I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I don't have men staring at me like I'm sort of an object, I don't have anyone harrassing me or giving me a hard time, and I just don't give myself any head ache.

The sheltered community I used to live in, my family, friends family, school community, things were very different. When I joined the public university where there are 40,000 + people from everywhere and have different and diverse collection of beliefs and ways of life, it was hard for me to continue my life the way I have always led it. I might have spared myself most of the headache, but I can't tell you I'm happy either, I'm not. But I have a case of what I would like to call a split-personality-wardrobe-syndrome. What I wear to University is not what I wear to a family gatehring, it's not what I wear to go shopping and it's definitly not what I wear to a night out with friends. It depends. It might not be the right approach, but it's the least painful for me.

The majority would like to see women where they belong, in their house, waiting for the knight in shining armor to rescue them and take them where they can do hard labour for the rest of their lives. Making babies, cleaning and cooking. Probably, they can go and teach later, it's one of the very few noble professions for a "woman".

Most of the women are happy about that too. Because, yes, they are internalized to want it that way.

Of course, that is not the case all the time. And the status of women in Jordan is way better than many many more neighbouring countries. Please don't be limited by the university community if that's where you spend your everyday life now.

Just two more notes.

First, yes, most of women who believe that their roles in life is to produce and serve their produce later, naturally believe that whenever their roles are facing shortcomings, the man should look for alternatives. This is dehumanization on their part. It is widely acceptable/understandable/tolerated for a man to go cheat and live his lives after marraige the way they like. Because if they did, it is not his fault, it's the wife's fault, becuase she couldn't fully be responsible for her vital role, and if she were, nothing like that would have happened. Going back to the culturally expected /internalized roles of woman and man.

Second, a large part of any harassament you might get definitly goes back to the fact that you are foreign. American and European women in general are viewed as sexually liberated and easy. Thanks to holywood of course. When 95% of males are not getting it, shit happens. Anyway, in my humble opinion, the quikest and most effective cure to any male harassment here is totally ignoring them like they do not exist.

One last thing, it is not wrong that your friend is not willing to comply to another culture's customs and adopt a modest way of dressing. But doing so will only make her subject to more than she is willing to take sometimes. It is just extra headache that she can do without.

Anyway, I talked too much:) I hope that you have a nice day!

10:39 PM  
Anonymous mohammad said...

Well, it's your life and you should wear what ever you want , it's not your fault that guys stare at you , it's just that some guys in Jordan are idiots , I think they stare at everyone , even if she's wearing a nekab , so the only thing you can do is ignore them .

11:44 PM  
Blogger Steven Kesler said...

On behalf of married men everywhere I would like to offer an apology. Perhaps it's because the male brain is wired differently than female brains - I don't know. It sure does seem that women get the short end of the stick the vast majority of the time.

2:47 AM  
Anonymous Martha in Michigan said...

At first reading, I wondered why you referred to this phenomenon as cultural, rather than religious, for Islam certainly seems to put the burden on women with an assumption that men cannot be expected to control themselves.

Then I recalled the stories of a friend who spent an undergraduate semester in a Spanish-speaking, largely Roman Catholic country in South America. Not only were they incredibly racist (which they freely revealed to this very white-looking woman, whose father is black), but machismo was much worse than I had expected. The host family’s father made no attempt to hide his mistress, who got material perks not made available to the family. The capper, to me, was her tale of the 11-year-old son reaching out to slap his mother at dinner one night because his soup was not hot enough. No one—not mom, dad, or the kids—found this surprising or disrespectful except the American girl, who blew a gasket over it. Can’t blame that on Islam….

The solution, to me, is more independence for women. I can’t fix the politics or culture of other nations (or my own, for that matter), but I do contribute money to organizations that offer women birth control and microloans to start their own businesses. Money and fertility control are two giant steps forward for women anywhere.

11:25 PM  
Anonymous kinzi said...

Anonima, I'm laughing over 'split-personality wardrobe'.

Martha, I was just wondering the other day how much of Latin and South American machismo could have been a cultural holdover from the Moorish rule of Spain? It was just a thought, but might be worth some study by someone somewhere.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca said...

Hi Frances,
I've thought a long time about you're post, and decided that I don't know if men are staring at me, because I'm not looking at them. They most likely are-- after all I stare at foreigners, too! As for the type of graphic harassment you have suffered, I haven't experienced that, but I don't think it's due to anything I've done or not done... I think it's only by the grace of God, because He knows I couldn't handle that!
As for women in the workplace, I think it depends largely on what kind of work. In my office (engineering), about half of the staff are women. And the percentage in high positions is at least as high or higher than it was in the states.
However, you won't generally see women in rolls where they have to deal with the public, like shopkeeping. I'm looking forward to the day when I can buy most of my clothes from a shop staffed by a woman!

3:28 PM  

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