Monday, May 9, 2011

"Don't you just love the things that limit our society?"

This is a legitimate response from a young Jordanian woman who was asked to come to my Arab Women Writers class and talk to us about life and women's issues in Jordan. This is the second discussion we've had this semester, only this time Jordanian men were invited to join as well. While some of the conversation was productive and illuminating, a lot of it was simply frustrating. For instance, the quote that starts off this blog is an answer to the question "What should be changed in Jordanian society?" and this young woman believed that any change would amount to a loss of Arab culture and identity, as she put it, "Becoming just like the rest of the world." Now obviously, I had quite a few issues with this point. One, the rest of the world is just as different and unique as Arab or Jordanian or Muslim culture, all three of which are very distinct from each other - just as American, collegiate, and Christian cultures are different from each other. Secondly, traditions and customs in her culture limit and HARM the people it embodies, which in my mind is not right. The moral of the story, deduced from my studies and my time in Jordan, is that it all comes down to choice. Having a choice in life is a right, not a privilege, and not something to be delegated to your parents, family, society, whatever. I will defend any woman's choice to go around hijab-less in Jordan just as much as I will defend the right for any woman to wear the niqab in France. Yes, individualism is not a stressed role in Jordan, but it is integral to create an identity and is not just some "Western" norm. And in my mind, this emphasis on choice is at the foundation of many issues in Jordan's society, whether it be wearing or not wearing the hijab, pre-marital sex, or simply a woman's right to work.

This element of choice is also the absent voice in conspiracy theories. Almost every single Jordanian, of about 14 in class, didn't believe Osama bin Laden was dead. Either it was because he was already dead, or he wasn't dead, or whatever, the details are not important. The importance lies in the underlying belief that every single news item or media coverage was a lie. CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera. It was all big business, and you couldn't trust anything. And yes, questioning the news (which is a business) and questioning sources is important for anyone. But there's a difference between skepticism and blind ignorance. One of my classmates made an excellent point: "In the age of WikiLeaks, people and the government are held more responsible than ever for their validity." This also is a good time to point out that we live in the age of facebook, twitter, and blogging, meaning that at any given moment there are thousands of eye witnesses to news events around the world. How else are we getting any coverage at all from Syria? Conspiracy theories, a belief in repressive customs being intregal to a societal identity, all of these point to the victimization card. Yes, Jordanians, Arabs, Muslims, many of these people have reason to feel discriminated and victimized. But holding onto that belief, of constantly being the victim and refusing to take a proactive role in correcting these wrongs, only perpetuates the wrongs and customs and traditions and stereotypes that repress and limit their society. Brooke pointed out to me, "There was no point to half of that conversation because it was so immature." For a real dialogue to take place, you have to be able to look at yourself and say, these are my strengths, and these are my weaknesses. If I'm not willing to acknowledge either of those, there is no point in having a conversation. Self-criticism is crucial for forward growth, and that group of students, for the most part, was unwilling to take on that responsibility.

Another thing that drove me up a wall was the conversation on stereotypes. The students were very eager to hear how our stereotypes, whatever they may be, had changed since we'd been in Jordan. For the most part, American students cited positive stereotypes or nuetral stereotypes that were mostly reinforced while abroad. If anything, the negative stereotype I encountered most of all was the role of vicitmization and defensiveness against America and the rest of the world. I attempted to explain this by saying that of all the stereoptypes Americans might hold against Jordanians, it depends on the individual. America is more diverse, and significantly larger both in population and geography, than Jordan is. The opinions and stereotypes of a New Yorker are significantly different than those of someone living in Columbus, or Seattle, or a small town in North Dakota. The stereotypes you are searching for, the negative ones, do not belong to anyone in this classroom - we volunteered to be here because we are interested in Jordan and its people and want to break the stereotypes that limit cross-cultural interactions. The negative stereotypes are found in the people who refuse to leave America, or broaden their horizons learning about other cultures. And to a certain extent, I think this went through. But it's difficult to have that conversation when there are so many negative American stereotypes floating around Jordan based on either media coverage (which they distrust when it comes to ME news, but not apparently when it comes to reality tv) and limited interactions between family members or friends who emigrate to the US. One girl said, "It's not fair that you criticize us for looking and staring at you when you walk down the street in a tank top, but its fine for my sister to be harassed for wearing her hijab in the US." to which we asked, where is your sister from? the answer: "Memphis." Of the three Memphis/Tennessee natives in the room, all said, "Oh. That's why." But more importantly, what we tried to bring across to her, is that it's not fair in the US to be harassed, and it shouldn't be fair here. No one is asking to be harassed, and yes while staring may occur, it happens. a hijab-clad woman in America is out of the norm, just as I as a white, sleeves rolled up to my elbows single woman am out of the norm here. The difference is that I do not victimize myself. I am aware that I draw attention simply by being me, but I do not let it bring me down. I do not chalk it up to intolerance, rather let it lie at mere curiosity.

More than ever, this conversation reinforced my belief that for women's rights and societal change to really occur in Jordan, it has to come from Jordanians themselves. Changing perspectives cannot be forced upon them from outsiders. Not only is there the inherent distrust of Westerners, but without a societal majority backing any change, that change will be hard to implement. If Jordanians continue to vicitumize themselves, acting passively instead of proactively, it will be impossible for anything to change at all. I'm sure there are plenty who will disagree with me, and to that I say: fine. Prove me wrong. Go out and do something about it. Right now.

That's my rant for the day. Potentially more posts like this to come soon. I'm home in two weeks!


1 comment:

  1. I wrote my history term paper about women in Iraq and I came to the same conclusion: the change has to come from women themselves! It is so cool that you are actually seeing this in action.