I come to the Middle East from a distinctly Western background. It is impossible to divorce myself and my impressions from this background. Growing up with the Middle East, quite sadly, often depicted as a place with a culture of repression where women were – simply – forced to wear the hijab and live subservient to their husbands, I arrived here, learned this was far from all there was to see, appreciate, learn, understand, and pushed back quite strongly against the simple “terribly sad gendered hierarchy” interpretation I had been given – often overdoing my defense in the name of cultural relativism and the attempt to defeat stereotypes. Years of study and three months of residence in, I finally feel I have some standing in which to present a not objective, but at least more nuanced discussion of what gender and gender roles mean to me and how they appear to me in this country that I am trying to make – at least temporarily – my own.
But that is all this is, how things appear to me. Likely, this view will be far from how these things appear to many others – Jordanians, Palestinians and Westerners alike.
First: Where these impressions are coming from. Two places, really. One, and perhaps most importantly, conversations. The topic of difference in gender roles and responsibilities cannot be avoided when you are a Western female working with and becoming friends with Jordanian females. In the camp, and in taxis and in general life, the questions necessarily come up: what is the dress code like in the States? Is it true that a woman can sleep with whomever she would like, whenever she would like? Does it really not matter if her family hates the man she is with? Can a young girl live by herself, alone, unprotected? If to a Western reader these questions seem absurd, overly general, ignorant – our questions back – Are all women repressed? Do you feel you have no freedom? Don’t you hate being forced to wear the hijab, the niqab? – seem similarly absurd to a Jordanian/Palestinian audience. The fact is – the fascination, and misunderstanding, goes both ways – from the Western interest-broaching-obsession with veiling to the Middle Eastern curiosity/condemnation/fascination with Western social codes on dress and sexual freedom. On both sides, it’s complicated.
Secondly, and largely, my impressions come from my work with UNRWA. I haven’t written about it here, but I’ve been lucky enough to have my 4 days a week at UNRWA become quickly filled with real and vastly interesting work. The agency is rolling out a Gender-Based Violence Referral System in four of the camps; a service direly needed – as will be discussed below. Helping manage the project has allowed me to dive into Jordanian legislation on domestic and sexual abuse, talk to different actors – lawyers, health workers, NGOs – working on the issue and discuss with UNRWA staff in the camps what the situation is for women or children (or men)* who are abused, how the authorities treat them and what societal pressures are upon them regarding speaking out and seeking redress or a change in their situation.
So now, on to the analysis that I am so reticent to give. A topic so loaded always needs to be begun with excuses and apologies. But, eventually, it needs to be begun – in all its over-generalizations. Else how can you try and begin to understand a place?
First, upper classes in Jordan (different in the Gulf it seems) are, as expected, usually a lot more “Westernized” in terms of dress and also in terms of “sexual freedom.” [Now thinking: Sexual freedom may potentially be a misleading term, as there is also a very possible – and here likely – chance that the choice in terms of sexuality and sexual expression will not be sexual experimentation or promiscuity, but rather conservatism. If it is a choice, independently taken, does it not still count as sexual freedom?]. I won’t talk much about the upper classes, primarily because my work is in the camps – necessarily with the more economically hard-struck. In addition, a Westerner doesn’t need an explanation of the sexual or economic role of the upper class women here, as it is quite similar to that you’d find in the States or Europe – some amazing, brilliant women working, pushing, advocating, dominating business, other beautiful Desperate Housewives types who choose to focus on the home, children, clothing instead of professional domination. Both a choice, both their right to take.
In the lower classes, dress and ideas on sex – as you guessed – are far more conservative. In the camps, I have not yet seen a woman not veiled (minus me and girls under 10 or so), and niqabs aren’t uncommon. However, it should be noted that women are usually proud of their dress code, and the niqab is actually often a mark of higher standing – economically or socially – in the camp. Niqabi women are often quite proud that they are niqabi, and ready to quickly explicate on why they have this pride in being niqabi.
[Insert anecdote here:] I was sitting in the camp one Saturday, chatting with some of the women teachers. We had gotten to the topic of Western dress codes and societal roles for women… again. They were horrified, quite horrified when they began explaining to me the shorts and shirts and practically-underwear that they understood Western women could wear, not being able to understand how a woman could want to expose herself like that, to make herself such a sexual object, rather than protecting her dignity and her personhood with men by covering up and dressing “appropriately”. I tried to explain that it depended on the girl, and that not all girls dressed that way with the express intent of provoking men. Although in my experience growing up, some most certainly did, do. Also tried to help increase understanding that freedoms in relationships and living situations and family approvals also very much depended on the family. Primarily, the women were concerned that if a girl was able to choose her partners and eventual husband without her family’s consent, did that not mean that her connection with her family would be destroyed, and how could that be okay? I explained as best I could. Then we turned to hair.
They had wanted to play with mine before – this time I obliged. Their skill with braiding was absurdly impressive. As it was only women, they felt comfortable enough to take off their hijabs and showed me their own majestically braided hair (oh.my.god.give.me.glistening.black.hair.like.that). Then I followed their questions with my own, asking for explanations of the different styles of hijab, and they were only too happy – all smiles really – to begin to explain and point and re-construct for me. I should have expected, anticipated maybe, but at that point, I had no choice. The braid was then followed with hijabi hair styling – and the women snapped pictures to show me just how nice it looked.
But, none of this was done in a “you should dress like me” sort of way. All was laughter and joking and curiosity and playfulness for a bunch of 20-something-year old women who were a bit bored during the break between to classes. Similar to exchanging clothes with a friend who dresses starkly different from you – the exchange was done just to see how it looked, for amusement. The point is, dress code is simply dress code, fashion. Culturally defined, yes – but a fashion chosen and enjoyed, often with pride.
Now, moving beyond the defense to a bit of – I hope – nuanced criticism. Things are not ideal for women here – as they are not ideal for women in the States, on anywhere.
Still on dress codes and sexual identity. The two are often conflated here – dress provocatively, understand it will be assumed that you are trying to be provocative. In certain areas (certainly not all), when dress codes are flouted, it should be expected that you will be harassed – cat called, hollered at, honked at, disrespected. I’ve mentioned it before.
Now, I personally choose to dress conservatively, because I know it will help me avoid the hassle of the too-loose-tongues of the young men abounding in many of the streets. But, there is something in that statement which forces the question – is this choice or a more subtle manifestation of communal pressure to conform?
As always, I turn to the people that live here for an answer. The women I work with admit that such behavior of men in the streets is ridiculous – but they explicitly ask me to have patience and understanding. They say we have to “feel bad for the men, as they have it harder than the women.” The women’s rationale is that the men don’t have opportunities to work, are bored, feel disempowered and – most seriously – ashamed. To deal with the shame of not being able to fulfill their typical and expected role, they are forced to find means of artificially expressing their power and dominance – manifested for me in catcalls for flouting dress codes. The idea is similar to that of domestic violence rates being higher in economically depressed classes, or racism more expressed. If you feel personally disempowered, you need to find a group to dominate, to re-assert for yourself that you have power. Here, the women in the camps often work outside the homes and manage quite a bit inside the homes. They don’t need to assert their power, because they have a bit of it, more than they have to have as defined by cultural stereotypes. The final point being, when women talk about empowerment and status and equality, it generally has little to do with veils and sexual freedom, but more about economic and political status (the ability to make and effect decisions in society) and being able to find recourse when they are abused violently.
On to violence.
For me, regardless of your movement down the culturally relative line – violence is simply not okay. Violence against a person is in direct contradiction to displaying respect for that person. It flouts choice and freedom, inflicting pain upon a person by your will – not theirs. Regardless of how you want to dress or express yourself sexually, violence is an infringement on your rights. And, sadly, domestic violence and sexual abuse are far from rare.
In the Jordanian government’s defense, they are trying. A few years back, they established the Family Protection Unit, which is mandated to deal with cases of domestic and sexual abuse – to provide psychosocial counseling, legal aid and removal from life-threatening situations. But to the ever-present but. Repeatedly I have been informed that women who show up at the Family Protection Unit and discuss domestic abuse are told by the receiving officer to go home to their father or brother or husband and do their duty. It’s not policy, it’s the bias of that officer – but enough feel that domestic abuse is acceptable, that the public complaint of a woman is not, that they can send a woman with bruises from beatings back home without further thought. And shelter barely exists. In fact, women who are at risk of being killed by their families (honor killings are rare, but not non-existent) are given two options – to return home or be placed in protective custody – in jail, really – placed with other prisoners and not differentiated from them, only able to be released after that family that is targeting them signs a statement promising not to hurt them. Meaning in practice that their freedom is now dependent on the family they are fleeing from. Women have been stuck for years (and years and years). However, the law that most horrifies me is set in the Jordanian Penal Code. It states that if a man rapes a woman, he will be punished harshly – often life imprisonment. However, if he marries that woman, the rape is still considered a crime, but he cannot be punished. If he divorces her before three years have passed, the case can be re-opened and punishment pursued. If he divorces her after three years, though, no punishment for him. Only the three years – or perhaps a lifetime – of punishment for her.
Part of what UNRWA is trying to do is provide a safe space for women to talk about their issues, problems, pain – because generally it is seen as a mark of a shame for a woman to discuss being victim to domestic or sexual abuse. She can’t talk about it with her friends, her family, and as discussed – many don’t feel safe reporting the issue to the police. Hopefully, this protection gap will be filled in the not too distant future, with UNRWA and some amazing Jordanian NGOs working on the issue – as well as Jordanian and Palestinian staff – men and women alike – who are staunch advocates for change, passionate and engaged and dedicated, fighting for changes in laws and changes in services offered which will lead to recourse for women who have been forced to be subjected to violence and then forced to deal with the repercussions and pain alone.
Now back to excuses and apologies and pleas for nuanced understanding. There are issues here – there are issues everywhere. The States has some gross rates on domestic and sexual abuse as well – and while not privy to the exact legislation, I’m sure we could find some horrendous laws out there that just can’t be believed. And women at home are going on “Slut Walks” to fight against the same perception that is found here – that “provocative” dress necessarily means a “provocative” woman, and that it is the woman’s responsibility to dress conservatively as otherwise a man could just not help but see her as anything but sexual.
I guess, the point is – as illegitimate as it may sound – it is complicated, utterly complicated. But it is the truth. Gender roles and identity and expression depend on the economic class of the person, the family background and their personality – just as it does elsewhere. Still, a thing called culture exists. In my experience, it is just much more ambiguous and loosely and heterogeneously defined than is typically thought.
*Why men was in parenthesis.
GBV tends to be thought of and targeted towards women victims. Have even read some UNHCR publications that have made the slip of only including women and children in their targeted beneficiary structure. However, by definition and in fact, men can also be victims of GBV. For me, disregarding male victims – who often have an even harder time of coming forward when they have been subjected to a sexual crime – seems limited and absurd.