Culture Jordan3

Published on October 7th, 2012 | by Charu Suri


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.

The Changing Culture of Jordan's Women: a beautiful lady in Jerash

Pretty Woman: A lady in Jerash

The Changing Culture of Jordan's Women: a beautiful lady in Amman

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.

Woman Security Officer in Madaba, Jordan

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.


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10 Responses to The Beautiful Changing Culture of Jordan’s Women

  1. I’m glad you had a great experience in Jordan! I think any time a woman is 6-months pregnant and traveling it’s natural for others to be concerned. Glad it didn’t stop you from seeing all the sites! I also ran into a gaggle of singing, super-friendly school girls in Jerash. I’m wondering if the tourism board always schedules the press trips during school holidays, or if this is a coincidence? :)

  2. Very thoughtful article on the changing culture of Jordan’s women…

  3. Evelyn says:

    So very happy that you came and saw Jordan for yourself, its very normal for others to say negative things about a place they have never taken the time to get to know, read about, let alone come and see for themselves. I love living here and have always found the people to be the kindest respectful people. Jordan is steeped in history as is the whole region, just a shame people cant travel very far past Jordans borders these days, as the countries on our borders are as beautiful…. one day ensha allah

    • Charu Suri says:

      Evelyn, thank you so much for the reply. I am so glad to hear you say that. It was a wonderful experience for me to be with the Jordanians…they were ultra hospitable and friendly. And yes, they give you so much respect. I will definitely return!

  4. ann says:

    thanks this

  5. Katy says:

    It is so refreshing to hear a positive story about women in a Middle-Eastern country! I am something of a feminist and there is still a lot of work to be done all over the world to stop the persecution of women, but to pretend that we in the West are civilized and enlightened while the rest of the world are idiots is a ridiculous and simplistic view. Thank you for sharing this story!

    • Charu Suri says:

      It was an eye opening experience, Katy and one I would gladly do again. There are so many misconceptions about the Middle East and we need to face them and really think through them, one by one, as though peeling an onion.

  6. Suzy says:

    I’m glad you were treated with kindness and respect in Jordan. I think it’s admirable to travel while six months pregnant and to a Middle Eastern country no less. It’s interesting to hear of the culture for women in Jordan is changing on its own.

  7. Jenna says:

    Jordan seems like a lovely place to visit, and I’m glad you had such a positive experience with the people. I have had some students from Jordan (both men and women), and they were some of the most fun, warm people I’ve had in my classes.

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