Amman, Jordan April 2013.
The taxi pushed through the ceaseless traffic of the capital’s wealthy western suburbs. Gazing out of the open window, I was met by a blast of hot air. It was spring and by Australian standards, certainly shorts and T-shirts weather. My decision to wear knee length shorts to class that day had caught the driver’s eye.
“Just so you know”, he began, “this isn’t correct to wear here”, pointing to my bare knees. Knowing where he was going with this, I assured him the shorts were longer when standing. He continued regardless, while I was tempted to mention that his portly belly exposed by an undersized shirt could be just as serious a breach.
Male dress didn’t concern him much, he said. As long as your shorts weren’t too short, so you wouldn’t be mistaken for a homosexual. Women’s dress on the other hand was very important. Drowzy from the heat and having had similar conversations before, I wasn’t paying too much attention and the line nearly slipped by.
“A woman’s body is like a piece of meat, you can’t leave it out of the fridge or uncovered it will become rotten…”
I had heard jokes and anecdotes about conservative views, literal and visceral as this but was still shocked when I heard it first hand.
“This jeans and shirt, look there, it’s American, not Islamic! These girls are trashy…but look here, a respectable mother, no flashy colours, no tight clothing…that’s respectable.”
As we rolled on, the driver continued, casting his opinion on every woman we passed. Jeans, shirt and Hijab, no Good, “too revealing”; Jilbab in Black, Olive, Navy or Grey, respectable and proper; even some Abbaya and Niqab were unacceptable if they were the fitted silky variety, which hug the body slightly. (see Glossary)
Traffic lights were a great opportunity for the driver to let the women know what he felt about their attire. Ranging from lustful remarks to paternal reprimands, he was by far the most vocal steering-wheel vigilante I had met so far.
On the streets of Amman, the effects of Jordan’s growing exposure to the western world through travel, films, music and fashion are noticeable. Shopping malls, fast food chains, MTV and consumer culture are now well known, rubbing up against religious and social traditions that sanctify piety. My driver was one such Jordanian seemingly caught up between these conflicting social forces
While certainly not reflecting the views of all Jordanians, a conflicted and vocal conservative current is common among Jordanian men. This unofficial social policing goes beyond a virile male’s simple fashion critique. In a society where the perceived “respect” and honor of an individual reflects upon the entire extended family, this form of bullying is influential in pressuring women into conservative dress and behaviour.
State sanctioned sexual discrimination of the Gulf monarchies gains most global attention regarding women’s dress and social status. However, in less publicized parts of the Arab world such as Jordan, conservative attitudes still lie close to the surface. While outwardly seeking to identify as a modernizing, relatively liberal and religiously tolerant Arab nation, Jordan’s history and political circumstances point to a more complex reality.
Jordan’s perception among the western world is influenced by its long alliance with both the UK and US. It is not only a political and military hub for its allies. Jordan’s relatively stable modern history, numerous land borders and archeological wealth has made it a popular regional base for NGOs, foreign journalists, tourists and multi-national regional businesses. As such it has a strong impetus for keeping up a progressive appearance.
A website operated by the Royal Hashemite Court proudly claims “Jordan has consistently been cited by Amnesty International as the country with the best human rights record in the region” (1). I was told by a teacher at the University of Jordan “Women can be or do anything they want in Jordan”.
On paper most of this seems true and some of these efforts seem genuine. Constitutionally women are equal to men in all respects. Women are commonly found in public service roles including the police force and military as well as business. Affirmative action gestures have increased female seats in parliament to around 10% (2), while there are provisions for paid maternity leave (3).
Nominally Jordanian women can wear whatever they like, and a full range of conservative dress options can be seen throughout all parts of Amman. Christians (~4% of the population) account for most women seen not wearing a hijab. And while a handful of, mostly younger western-educated, Muslim women bravely choose not to, most wear a minimum of pants and long sleeve tops with colorful hijabs.
Despite the official image, women’s daily life is not so rosy. In practice, women in Jordan are still subject to much discrimination and harassment. Patriarchal traditions in the society combine with influential political actors providing strong resistance to social change.
The Hashemite royal family of Jordan originated in Mecca in south-west Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. It was trans-located by, Great Britain, north of the Red Sea after the first world war and established its legitimacy in the region through British support and negotiation with conservative Bedouin and settled tribes. While 60-70% are of Palestinian origin, the political make up of the nation still relies on non-state actors like the Muslim Brotherhood and traditionally more conservative indigenous Jordanian tribes and Bedouin.
Jordanian tribal and family links with their (now Saudi Arabian) homeland remain strong. The wealthier neighbour to the south helps sustain Jordan’s weak economy through business and trade. As a result decidedly more conservative Gulf migrant populations of relatives, tourists, students and businessmen are common in Jordanian life.
The level of harassment experienced by women on the street varies with the location, their state of attire and nationality. The more conservatively you are dressed the less likely you are to be hassled. The most common behaviour is a crude and hypocritical mix of comments simultaneously shaming the woman, yet proclaiming sexual desire towards her.
Daily, it comes from car windows, young men hanging outside cafés or snide remarks about family shame and honor from a shop keeper. In Amman’s grimy centre, unaccompanied women are subject to groping. Both Christian and Muslim young women I knew choose not to visit the centre of the city because they fear harassment.
Many Jordanian men are often inquisitive and jealous of western men. They quickly (taxi drivers being the quickest) get to asking “Do you have a girlfriend? Do you sleep with her? How many girls have you slept with?” Often going downhill from there.
A major factor in male enrolments in foreign languages at the University of Jordan seemed to be meeting foreign women in ‘language partner programs’. Once a phone number was acquired it would be passed around to all interested in trying their luck at getting a “date”.
Even when dressed modestly (completely covered except for their hair) foreign women are often treated worse than local women in public. Many Jordanian men have a distorted understanding of western women. The stark contrast of American movies, television and advertising to Arab social reality, leads many to assume that all western women are open to any sexual advance.
Due to a small but influential presence of eastern European sex workers, most are presumed to be or behave like prostitutes. Jordanian men also know that there is likely no angry family to come looking for them if they cause offense. Many foreign women I met received multiple daily requests for phone numbers and further encounters, from men of all sorts, students, taxi drivers and married men.
Sexual harassment, domestic violence and rape laws are very weakly enforced in Jordan and honor killings occur regularly with little punishment. Ignoring public harassment or shielding oneself by avoiding public exposure or dressing more conservatively seem to be the most common routes taken. Snapping back a sharp response or reporting harassment to police is likely to make matters worse, bringing more drama and gossip to the individual and family.
Reputation and honor is a recurring theme underpinning the issue of sexuality and social relations in the Arab world. It seems women are largely responsible for it, regardless of their actions. As Marta Pietrobelli reported, in 2011, a group of students produced a short video about the sexual harassment experienced by female students on campus. The following year, their professor was fired for her support of the film because the film was considered harmful to the university’s reputation, not the widespread sexual harassment on campus (2).
By the time our taxi drew near the University district, the driver had worked himself into a fervor. Passing a seemingly innocent trio of three Niqab wearing women on the footpath, he spat out the window, “Whores! “They are refugee whores!” He rumbled. “The khaleeji’s [Gulf Arabs] are responsible for that problem”.
Niqab-clad prostitutes walking around in a country like this?! As we parted ways I made a mental note to ask my next taxi driver about this…