Friday, June 17, 2011

What I learned today...

Our speakers today.  Rula is standing.

I posted some photos earlier but haven’t had much of a chance to share what I’m learning about the women’s movement in Jordan.  My knowledge is still minimum, but I hope to grow it over the next couple of days.  I imagine I’ll be processing this for years to come.  I am so struck with the parallel to U.S. women’s movements that I can’t shake it.  All of the struggles I heard about today have been and are currently mirrored in the U.S.  I wonder if this is true for other parts of the world as well.

Rula Quawas, a Jordanian professor and women’s activist, said that very little critical thinking happens in her classroom and in the greater society because independent thinking is discouraged.  She said that decisions are made by family patriarchs (and business owners) who make decisions based upon religion and their interpretations of the Holy Word.  I have faced the same issues when discussing feminism in the U.S.  It’s a bit more extreme here because it is much more collectivist here than in the U.S.  A woman must put her family and tribe first.  I’ve been told there is no Arabic word for I.  I’m not sure if the person who told me that was being literal or not.

Rula believes it is important to educate men (including religious leaders) about the oppression of women but said it’s tough because many of them see it as Western thought and a way to deculturalize the Middle East.  She mentioned honor killings and how women who stand up against such things are seen as loose and not religious.  (Same tactic used against feminist in the U.S.—except they’re usually called lesbians and man haters).  She also mentioned that there is apathy amongst Jordanian women and that women often don’t see that they’re being discriminated against.  That is a HUGE challenge for the women’s movement in Jordan.  Women have to have their awareness raised first.  Then activism. 

Many of the Jordanian women on the streets look sad and beaten down to me.  They are seen as “daughter of ______”, then “wife of __________”, then “mother of son’s name.“  They are not seen as individuals.  I see men out gathering together in town and having a few laughs but I’ve seen very few women together.  I’ve yet to see any laughing.  This made me think of Friedan’s concept of the “problem with no name.”  In fact, I asked if there was a common book (without mentioning Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”) women gather around in Jordan to discuss women’s issues.  The answer was no.

Another seminar attendee mentioned that feminist in the U.S. learned from the Black Civil Rights Movement.  Jordanians have not really had a similar experience from which to learn.  I hope that maybe they can look to the U.S. for ideas on how to advance, but I feel very ethnocentric (and not very 4th Wave) for saying that.

An aside:  I cannot begin to tell you about all of my ethnocentric moments in the last day. People ask me where I’m from, I say “America.”  They say, “Which one?” I tried to shake an elderly Iraqi gentleman’s hand.  He looked at me like I was crazy, but he shook it.  I also don’t know one word of Arabic and just get into every cab like the driver should know English.  I’ve had a couple of them say to me, “Speak Arabic.”  I’ll say, “Do you speak English?”  They respond, “Do you speak Arabic?”  I’ve taken to looking for small boys and speaking to them to get directions, etc.  They always speak great English, but the family patriarch wants me to speak to him, not his boys.  The little boys also know their U.S. geography.  They know Oklahoma is in the middle. 

The laws regarding Jordanian women are pretty good, but there is a problem putting laws into action.  One of the speakers said:  “Women’s conditions are changing but not their status.”

A major critique that one of our speakers had about the women’s movement in Jordan is that the research and activism is done my NGOs.  She said that they are a part of the system that oppresses women.  I’m guessing the NGOs are partially or fully funded by the government?  She also stated that these organizations have taken on a patriarchal structure.  The speaker who talked about this was very critical of the advances of women in Jordan.  She feels like much more can be done.  This is the same type of criticism we hear from feminist activists in the U.S.  In fact, this criticism sparked every wave of feminism in the U.S. (and much of the fragmentation of the movement as well).

By the way, I think our speakers are too hard on themselves.  The feminist activists have made great strides in the last 40 short years.  She says a lot more can be done and looks to Morocco and Tunisia for how that can be done.

Rula mentioned in regards to gender equality activism:  “The price is heavy.  It takes a toll on you.”  She said a Jordanian is always presented with the false dichotomy of being a feminist OR a nationalist.  A person cannot be both.  You’re either with us or against us.  I’ve also heard this discourse in the U.S.

I’ve had a few chances to interact with Jordanian women who work in shops, but I haven’t seen one girl yet.  It’s probably best for their dads if they keep those girls looked up while I’m here.  Today we asked one of our cab drivers if his wife wears traditional dress, including the head covering.  He said, “Of course!” and without skipping a beat, he very proudly said, “My daughters do too!”  His daughters are 14 and 15 years old.

The people of Amman have been very kind and hospitable.   It’s hard for me to wrap my head around why they don’t treat their women better, but that’s a very ethnocentric approach.  They think that doing what the Holy Word says is what’s best for their families.  Women sacrifice in a collectivist culture.  Family and tribe first.  There is no I.  Hmmm.  There is no I in team, but there is in famIly and trIbe.  Have I just found the new slogan for the Women’s Jordanian Movement?


  1. Wow...what an amazing post written while on your trip! This honestly will probably be used in one of my classes in the future (with your permission, of course). Amazing stuff, Amy. loving the reports and the photos!

  2. As for some women not recognizing the discrimination towards them, it is very difficult to see the whole picture when one is inside the frame. (as per both the women's and Black's movement in the US)
    Interesting that you have seen no younger women thus far during your visit.

    Appreciate the labels on the camels and donkeys;-)

    love, con

  3. This reminds me of things I saw as a child that...let's just say shaped some of beliefs. When you get back, I would love to hear all about your trip. Maybe dinner in the Quah.

    Rob Lawrence

  4. I found it wonderful that the children knew geography well enough to recognize that Oklahoma is in the middle of the USA. Many of our US students would not know this, sad to say.

    Even with awareness of our ethnocentricism, it is difficult to step outside it.

    Eager for you to speak to us about your experiences this fall.

  5. Regarding the young boys with which you spoke, were they open to interacting with a woman? I'm curious of the generation gap between the men and young boys and I wonder if future men of Jordan are more likely to embrace feminist culture. It would seem they have received more education, at least in the form of basic studies. I wonder if they are being educated on equality, at least in some part, as well?