Even though my primary motivation for blogging is to share my own experiences abroad with friends and family at home, I think it is important to also share the stories of others that have impacted me during my time in Jordan. As the semester is approximately halfway over (and my anticipation for my reunification with delicious Skyline Chili is growing that much stronger), I have heard numerous stories, both first-hand and from professors, about the struggles many Jordanians face. These accounts have prompted me to reconsider how the topics of religion, relationships, and family in the Middle East differ from, but occasionally align with, those in America.
The first story was told by my Middle East literature professor (fun fact: he received his master’s degree from UC in Cincinnati!) who is American but has lived and in Jordan and Egypt for the past several years. Soon after the 2005 Amman bombings in which three hotels frequented by tourists were targeted, my professor was taking a taxi from Queen Alia airport to Amman. During the 20-minute cab ride, he began talking to the driver and the conversation veered to personal relationships. The driver began lamenting the fact that he could not find a suitable woman to marry because he wants a Muslim wife who wears the hijab (the veil that covers the hair and neck but not the face). As the driver did not look particularly devout in his leather jacket, tight pants, and gelled hair, my professor asked, “You aren’t dressed too conservatively yourself, so why do you want such a modest wife?” The cabbie said that he used to wear the traditional Muslim clothing of the long white robe and scarf covering his head, but after the bombings, the Jordanian government began targeting religious-looking citizens since a radical Muslim group carried out the bombings. The driver said the police took him in for questioning and tortured him, trying to make him confess to a crime he had absolutely no involvement with. Since then, he began to dress more modernly to avoid suspicion and appear more sympathetic toward the West, but he still retained his devout religious beliefs.
Most Americans, especially those who have endured airport security procedures following 9/11, know about the concept of racial profiling. However, I had only considered it through the lens of Americans profiling minorities and not Middle Eastern governments profiling their own majorities. If the common Muslim man can’t escape stereotypes and persecution in a country like Jordan, where the vast majority of people are Muslim, how can we have any hope for peaceful relations in America?
In my Arab feminism class, we often discuss the struggle for power over women and how Arab women deal with an oppressive society. The daily topics range from rape to domestic violence to female genital mutilation. The professor is quite the storyteller, but many of them involve Bedouin families, tribal dynamics, or other topics that I have no experience with and, therefore, cannot relate to. However, a few weeks ago she told us the story of her best friend in Jordan. This woman was highly educated, spent time living in America, and worked as a professor at a different university. One day, she met an equally educated and Westernized doctor whom she dated and eventually married. Following the belief of most Muslims, she did not have sex before marriage to preserve her own and her family’s honor. It is a common tradition in the Middle East to consummate the marriage during the party following the wedding. The bride’s family then inspects the bed sheets, hoping to find blood that will prove the purity of their daughter. The sheets are then shown to all of the guests, or, if there is not a party, displayed outside of the house. My professor’s friend, knowing of these traditions but being a feminist, told her husband, “You and I both know, isn’t that enough?” and he slapped her across the face for attempting to persuade him to forego this tradition. Even though it is intended to prove the bride and her family’s honor, it is also a reflection upon the husband and proves he isn’t marrying “spoiled meat.”
It is easy to think of these traditions as limited to only the “ignorant” and “backwards” villagers, but it is shocking to realize that they are still practiced among the most educated and elite citizens. The value of honor is intrinsically tied to the idea of family, which is perhaps the most important aspect of Arab life. Jordanians truly believe that a woman’s family knows her better than she knows herself and have the right to make decisions in her best interest. This is hard for me to conceptualize, as my parents have never once protested against my choices to attend a university hundreds of miles away or study abroad in the most volatile region of the world (even though my dad did complain about the latter). I’ve never considered that independence can be viewed as a privilege, not a right.
As with any second-hand story, these tales must be taken with a grain of salt, but the ideas they inspire are still pertinent. America may have economic, civil, and defense issues that I do not agree with, but from the perspective of a woman whose relationship decisions are only dependent upon herself, it really is the land of the free.