Our discussion last Saturday began with each of us opening up about our worries, hopes, and expectations for the trip. Others mentioned their expectations of getting close with their homestay family, making close friends, or having an impact at their organization. I, on the other hand, emphasized how I tried very hard to have no expectations, to not come in with preconceived worries or notions about what life in Amman would be like. I tried to do this because I was surrounded by voices both at Duke and back home that strongly questioned my choice to come to Jordan. Despite my best efforts at controlling my biases and their affect on my perception of Amman, I believe now that I have failed. Even looking back on my first blog post, Hair, I noticed that it was essentially a counterargument against the bias I held towards the position of women in Jordan and in the Middle East in general.
I have this general discomfort with the gender based separation of spaces that is prevalent here. One of the most enjoyable moments in Amman thus far was watching the champions league final with several of my colleagues at a café. However, the only women in the entire café were the other Duke Engage participants. One of the waiters asked if the women with us were Russian, which in Amman is code for prostitute. This, all after our friends had to call around to find this single café that would even allow women to watch the game in the first place. This moment, among other instances, seemed to confirm my biases and preconceived notions about the society of Amman.
This is compounded by the subject of my research at the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University. I am fortunate to work for two amazing women, Dr. Hana Al-Gallal and Dr. Sara Ababneh. Dr. Hana was heavily involved in the Libyan revolution that ousted Qaddaffi, then eventually became the minister of education but resigned because she disliked the new path of the increasingly Islamist government and its restriction of women’s rights. Dr. Sara is great as well, she speaks several languages, and has engaged me in some truly fascinating discussions. My initial research with Dr. Hana actually helped to both reject and confirm some of the notions that I had towards the position of women in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). I read pieces on how heavily involved women were in the Arab Spring but had largely been excluded from the process of rebuilding their nations. I also learned about Islamic feminism, a truly intriguing movement that uses feminist interpretations of the Quran to promote the value that Islam in fact supports gender equality.
The most elucidating piece I read made a point on how the west uses women’s rights and the treatment of women to “other” different nations or societies, especially the MENA. This piece began to help me to come to terms with my discomfort I had been feeling in Jordan. My research with Dr. Sara has really opened my eyes to how my bias and “othering” of Jordan has occurred. Dr. Sara has me researching honor killings in Jordan but as a comparison to honor killings in America, and how the number of such killings, proportionally, do not differ much between the nations. Her overall message to me was “what does America’s obsession with honor killings say about America itself?” Initially, this was very difficult research to do, not because information was hard to find but because it was so upsetting once it had been found. The fact that many honor killers have reduced sentences because of the legal code of Jordan as well as family complicity in the killing was truly disturbing. I became more and more disenchanted with a culture where this was tolerated, and more and more discomforted by the instances I had personally seen of women occupying a secondary space in Jordan.
However, this was because I had forgotten about what Dr. Sara told me, I had to think about what my discomfort but morbid fascination with this topic and the more general treatment of women in Jordan said about me. I noticed that after Iftar usually the men will go sit in one room and the women will sit in another, but is that so different than it is in America? The cafés or the funeral reception for a General, which we were invited to by our host father, occupied solely by men, do these spaces not persist in the United States as well? I began to think about myself, I am in a fraternity, a traditionally male space, but I have no such discomfort with it like I do with the spaces here. I have been searching my mind trying to determine what justifies one and maligns the other. My beliefs have been constantly reinforced by media portrayals of Islam and the Middle East or common narratives promoted by politicians who try to make the MENA seem lesser by emphasizing women’s rights. It is imperative that we don’t limit our critique to other societies that we find problematic, but to look inward turn those critiques on analogous institutions and traditions that we blindly accept.