Published on October 7th, 2012 | by Charu Suri
10 The Beautiful Changing Culture of Jordan’s Women
“Be careful,” around half a dozen people told me before I embarked on my Jordan adventure. There I was, six months pregnant, visiting a country in the Middle East.
Loving statements freely given, I thought, and the well-wishers certainly meant no harm. They might as well be throwing rice at a wedding, wishing me luck, as though I was visiting some dangerous place for my honeymoon (to be perfectly honest, driving New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway seems far more dangerous).
A part of me felt excited but slightly apprehensive at visiting Jordan. Before visiting, I had read about Muslim’s various Status Laws, which are based on Sharia (the moral and religious code of Islam). Consider this:
- All single women (whether they are divorced, widowed or not married) under the age of 40 are considered legal minors, and have a male guardian;
- While marriage is completely universal, Muslim law permits Jordanian men to have as many as four wives;
- Women cannot marry for the first time without the consent of their male guardian;
- Men have the rights to sole legal custody of children.
While not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination, my heart sank after reading these stringent rules, and I hoped against hope that my brush with the country was not going to be similar to anything that Maureen Dowd had experienced and written about in her petrifying Vanity Fair essay, “A Girl’s Guide to Saudi Arabia.” I certainly did not know what the men would think of me, timid rebel adventurer who was touring with her unborn child, and without her husband.
But to think that whatever Ms. Dowd wrote about Saudia Arabia and women also applies to Jordan would be very misguided.
Pretty Woman: A lady in Jerash
Two young ladies I met while exploring the ancient ruins at Jerash
Often referred to as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” Jordan has a peace loving people with a genuine desire to make every visitor feel extremely welcome and comfortable in their country. Everywhere I went, the sense of hospitality and kindness was palpable. And in my condition, their courtesy was even more obvious. Every hotel I went to, the men went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable: they helped me with luggage; they insisted on carrying my bags, even my camera. I remembered a subway ride I had taken in New York City, where I was forced to stand for 15 minutes next to a well-dressed gentleman who didn’t even bat an eyelid or stand up to offer me his seat.
Jordan is a country that could have written the entire Emily Post book from scratch.
Here I was, off season in the middle of the world, having flown in from a country that prided itself on liberty, Constitutional freedom, and a culture that emphasizes individuality above everything else. We’ve come to take so much for granted like the freedom to marry, right to free speech, the right to travel anywhere, as though they were mints on a hotel pillow or shampoo easily purchased from the drugstore aisle.
Jordan’s cultural landscape is rapidly changing, especially with respect to its women. The Jordanian women I saw and spoke to seemed to have freedom of expression and even freedom of dress. Young women were walking in Jerash without abayas (the loose, robe-like typically black over-garment that is robe-like covering the body), as cheerful as kids on Spring Break. Many were clad in jeans and a cotton tunic, even smoking water pipes in open spaces. There were young girls who couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, shouting their fierce loyalty for King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein with no one to edit them.
Haneen Saleh, who works at Jordan’s only eco-lodge in Feynan, has also observed a welcome change in the cultural landscape. Women are now seen on the streets as traffic police officers, a much more different spectacle than a few years ago. Feynan Ecolodge also employs women, which represents a marked shift in the Bedouin community. The lodge has five women working in the leather and candle workshops and the sole bread provider to the lodge, Um Khalid, is a Bedouin woman who makes the bread in the comfort of her tent, which is a culturally sensitive way in which she can contribute to her family.
A security officer at the Visitors’ Center in Madaba, with a proper uniform and badges
In Madaba, the city of mosaics, I encountered a passionate young woman who worked as a security officer at the Visitors’ Center. She said she loved being a woman in Jordan, and had no desire to live anywhere else. And unlike some other Middle Eastern countries, there are no restrictions on where Jordanian women can sit in public places: there are no reserved seats or curtained off areas in major metropolitan areas.
The statistics are also heart-warming: the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research estimates that the number of female students enrolled in 2009-2010 was 17,409, an increase of 10% from the 2005-2006 figures. The Kingdom is also actively promoting and encouraging women to enroll in the community colleges, in order to match the country’s educational system with labor market requirements.
This is the direction in which the Kingdom wants to go, and it is in this sense that the news is welcoming. Too often, we try to fit a conservative square peg in a progressive round hole: change is often beneficial when it suits the mindset and outlook of a country, and is in keeping with its vision.
To impose Western norms on a country simply because we wish to Westernize it doesn’t make sense. And it is in this sense that the cultural shift to emancipate Jordan’s women is a truly beautiful thing, because it is what the Kingdom wants, and what the Jordanian women welcome.
As for me, I still look in the rear view mirror twice, especially while driving on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway.