This is a brief reflection on being a woman in an Arab country. It in no way claims to contain every perspective or give a holostic view of what it is like to be a woman in an Arab country/culture. These are stories told to me and my story. And now that the disclaimer is over…
I got “cat-called” six times in a span of an hour last night. Walking to the gym from work and then back home. All in all, a 55 minute walk. One man even stopped, rolled down his window and meowed at me. Yes. I said he meowed at me. He was pretty shocked when my response was to practically spit a curse back at him in Arabic. But, I’d been practicing that one for a while.
When I asked my program director in Amman why I got placed with a host family the exact opposite of what I had requested, she told me that it was because I needed to be in a “special,” safer neighborhood. Why? Because I have blonde hair and blue eyes. I would argue now that although I do tend to get a little more attention on the street, I don’t think my hair and eyes put me in too much more “danger” than my brunette counterparts.
It was so funny to me, as someone whose hair is never quite blonde enough and whose eyes are never quite blue enough in the US, to be credited with looking like Barbie, a beauty queen, a “real American girl” while in the Arab world, and receiving more male attention than I ever had in my life. I don’t think it ever had to do with me being especially pretty, but more that I was simply different.
It was not until 5 weeks into my time in Amman that I realized why I felt so uncomfortable walking down the street or going to the grocery store. It was because there were barely any women. Most women in Jordan would stay in their homes, having their sons or husbands fetch the groceries or run errands. When I walked on the street, I was surrounded by people, but not just people. I was surrounded by men. It took me a while to feel comfortable walking around town. Not only was I usually the only blonde-haired, blue-eyed one out, but I was also the only woman.
I felt like all eyes were on me, and I hated it. Eventually, though, I learned to embrace this, thanks to some advice from my Palestinian/American/Jordanian host-cousin. I either kept my eyes straight ahead and pretended the men around me didn’t exist, or I would greet those around me with a smile and break the ice a bit. It all depended on how I felt and how I assessed the situation.
One of my dear local friends in Jordan described feeling similarly as an Arab woman within a society that has certain expectations for her. She shared that her father’s family is constantly asking when she is going to get married (she is 23) and why she wants to go to university and get a job instead of getting married and having children. “For some women,” she said, “this is good, and one day I want a family too. But first I want my freedom. I want to choose my life’s path for myself. But here, in Jordan, I feel like I cannot. Everyone is judging what I wear, how I act, if I work, if I marry, where I go. Someone is always watching you. And it is like this for many women here. We don’t have the freedom you have.”
In Palestine, I have felt more comfortable, partially because of my growth in Amman, but also because there are more women out and about here than there were in Jordan. I have no idea why this is, but it would be interesting to look into later, and I am very thankful for all my ladies taking on the town.
The other day, I walked into the office of a local NGO for an interview to find the secretary wrestling with her hijab (the headscarf women wear to cover their hair). This was odd, because most women I know who are covered (another term for wearing hijab) would only adjust their head scarves in a private room, away from public eyes (mainly the eyes of men). I guess the secretary saw my quizzical look because she began explaining the situation to me.
She had grown up in a “modern” family that allowed her and her sisters to wear what they wanted. She had never worn the hijab until recently, after her marriage to a man from a more traditional family. She said, “He did not make me wear it, I chose to begin wearing it.” But then in the same breath said her husband had persuaded her to wear it, since now she is a married woman and it is improper to show her hair in public. I didn’t know what to think of the situation. I could only give reassuring words that I was not judging her or her husband and that yes, I would be frustrated by that thing right now too, and but oh habibti you do look beautiful, don’t worry.
There were many friends of mine in Amman who hated wearing hijab. One friend told me her father often complained to her mother about how she was dressing, that it was not suitable for a young woman to wear such clothes. Many women shared that they had to wear hijab to please their husband or their parents.
But, there’s also the other end of the spectrum. My host mom came from a very “modern” and liberal Muslim family. She did not wear hijab until she was in her mid-forties. My host mother had a spiritual crisis, in which she felt she needed to know The Truth. So she read all three of the Holy Books, the Hebrew Torah, the Christians’ New Testament, and the Qu’ran, and asked God to show her which was true. She felt, in the end, that the Qu’ran was true, and decided that if she was going to say to God, this is the way and truth you are giving me, she needed to commit herself to it fully. So, she began praying five times a day, reading the Qu’ran regularly, and wearing hijab.
Her family members think it’s strange, and say openly that they wish she did not wear it. To them, she’s crazy to choose to be covered.
So, please do not think that all women who wear hijab are being forced to. But please do think about the expectations you put on the women in your own life. Think about the expectations your culture puts upon the women in your life.
-To look a certain way
-To dress a certain way
-To serve a certain way
-To worship God a certain way
-To live a certain life (career, goals, relationships, family life, etc.)
And think carefully about the words you give the women in your life, especially regarding their choices. Are your words life-giving? Do they affirm her as someone who is strong, capable, and beautiful in her own way?
I was blessed to grow up in a family where I was given this affirmation. I would say that in general, my host family in Jordan gave me a similar love. And I would also say that it has served me well as a woman, here and at home.