Rhoda Leven Flaxman ’61, a professor of English at Brown University (Director of Dean of the College Writing Programs), joined a delegation of 20 alumnae from Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley and Vassar to Jordan March 26-April 4, 2006. Their goal was to forge connections with Jordanian women leaders in government, education, business, media and the arts who are trying to transform their country.
The trip marks the first year of Among Women: An International Dialogue, a program begun by Bryn Mawr and its sister women's colleges to engage with women in selected regions worldwide and explore the issues that affect us all.
The other Bryn Mawr alumnae who traveled to Jordan were Marjorie McHenry Bride ’61, Gretchen Hill Kingsley ’61, Barbara Schieffelin Powell ’62, Jane Miller Unkefer ’55, and Elizabeth Curran Warren ’49.
Live the Contradictions: Jordan Beyond the Veil, 2006
By Rhoda Leven Flaxman ’61
I want to give you a snapshot in time of what I saw and learned in Jordan. I went there as part of a delegation of women from Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley, and Vassar, who were trying out a new model of travel. The trip, organized by Distant Horizons, an offbeat travel company whose trips go only to unusual places like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Patagonia, and the like, was offered to women from each college who had been on either the Executive Committee of their Alumnae organizations or their Boards of Trustees. The goal was to create an international dialogue, forging connections between American women and prominent Jordanian women who were trying to transform their country. The situation of women in Jordan would be explored by meeting and conversing in depth with exceptional women in leadership positions in government, education, business, media and the arts. When I received the list of women with whom we’d meet, I called my friend and colleague. Professor Martha Joukowsky, who has done significant archeological excavation of the Great Church at Petra, and who takes students to Jordan every summer. I asked her if the trip sounded worthwhile, and, when I read her the partial list of Jordanian women we would meet, she said, “Many of these women are my friends. Go!”
I also checked with Eric Widmer, Brown’s former Director of Admissions and retired Head of Deerfield Academy, who was going to head Jordan’s first coed boarding school, one of the few in the whole Middle East. This school, King’s Academy, is sponsored by King Abdullah, who encourages economic ventures in his country.
I needed reassurance, because I had never been to the Middle East. And every day in our newspapers, we read of the terrible events in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. My adult children, and many of my friends, thought I was crazy. “Jordan!” they said. “Why? And besides, it’s dangerous! It’s an Arab country!”
I have to admit I was nervous. I also know that I went with significant assumptions about what I’d find. I wanted to get behind the veil of my own resuppositions in order to understand something about the lives of women in the Middle East. And I want to tell you something about the surprises and revelations I received, and what I learned.
But first, some disclaimers. I am an English professor, not a political scientist, an economist, or even an archaeologist. I don’t pretend to be a Middle East expert. And, making any statements about that area is daunting, since every day the media present new facts and analysis. Even today, April 10, 2006 as I work on this essay, The New York Times’ lead article, reads, “Arab Democracy, a U.S. Goal, Falters.” The article tells us that steps toward democracy are slowing, blocked by legal maneuvers and official changes of heart throughout the Middle East, due to the political rise of Islamists, and the chaos in Iraq, with its implication for increasingly aggressive Iranian influence. Says one editor in Saudi Arabia, “It feels like everything is going back to the bad old days.” And I remember the words of the pathbreaking Jordanian lawyer who told us that she had to struggle each day against the “hijackers” of legal reforms in Jordan. The Times article mentions Jordan, which often is overlooked in reports from the Middle East. “In Jordan,” it says,” where King Abdullah II has made political change and democratization a mandate, reformers see their hand weakened, with a document advocating change and known as the National Agenda put on the back burner.” And I think of the young lawyer who hosted us at a formidable gathering at her opulent home, so that we could meet her friends and colleagues, all young, incredibly attractive women who were working hard to improve the lives of women in their country. We had discussed reforms with them. They were fighting hard against the old ways. What would happen to them, and to the reform movement that seemed to us so hopeful when we left Jordan on April 4?
Archaeologist Barbara Porter ‘75, director of the Amman Center of Oriental Research, with its poster of the “Spring” mosaic from the 6th century Petra Church, excavated by ACOR in the 1990s; the El-Deir Monument at Petra; the sanctuary at Mt. Nebo, the memorial of Moses, presumed site of his death and burial place, and a center for pilgrimages since the earliest Christian times (photos by Jane Miller Unkefer ‘55)
The first day in Amman, we met at lunch in a former caravansary with a number of young women who had set up small to mid-size entrepreneurial businesses. One owns the first chocolate factory in Jordan. Another is a partner in a family firm that grows and exports the yellow dates that Arabs love. And a third runs a high-end costume jewelry business with her own designs. This woman grew up in London, where she was trained as an architect. When her family decided to return to Jordan, she concluded that Jordanian culture would not welcome her architectural design sense, so she switched to designing and selling jewelry. Considering the large number of sales she made to our group, she is
doing very well! Her work is in twenty stores; she was just about to sell to Neiman Marcus in Washington, when 9/11 struck. The order was cancelled. Unable to get gold or silver for her jewelry, she bought copper wire and taught her employees to knit it into necklaces, as a hopeful response to 9/11.
It was the former architect who gave me the title of this talk. When asked why she returned to Jordan and gave up the profession for which she had been trained, she said, “It’s one thing to learn about the Middle East as an academic exercise. It’s another to live here. I decided to come back in order to live the contradictions.” The phrase encapsulated much of what I heard from the women in Jordan.
This artist tries to realize contemporary Jordanian design, and not just copy traditional silver Bedouin jewelry. She says she is fighting outmoded local attitudes of resistance to new design. And she makes a point of training and employing women. The conversation quickly turned, as it did so often during our meetings, to questions of how women overcome cultural biases against them in Jordan. Here, the entrepreneurs disagreed. One said that when a woman marries, she’s forced to quit work. Another said, No. only the city girls quit when they get married; the rural girls continue. But they must receive permission from the alpha male in their lives. They are escorted, and often chaperoned, at work, and they are not allowed to take courses, or to advance in their fields. The jewelry designer told us that rural girls are not allowed to keep their wages, but must give them to their husbands. To help them, the jewelry designer secretly opens savings accounts for her employees, and banks the money.
We heard a lot about NGOs in Jordan. Business centers help women start businesses, some funded by USIA, supporting their attempts to penetrate export markets with technical assistance, networking, and training. On this first day of our trip, I wrote, “Things are moving very fast for women in Jordan. And I’m surprised at what I’ve already learned that throws some things I’ve read about the Arab world into question. I’ll try to hear a point of view other than what I read in western media.”
An overview of Middle Eastern issues in April 2006 centers on three topics: the Muslim Movement, the Palestinian situation (which of course draws Israel into the conversation) and Iraq. But I want to allude to these three topics through the lens of what I learned for myself, because you can find out more about the political situation than I have time to tell by merely seeking out as many different sources of information as you can. So, instead, I want to mention five things I learned in Jordan, and focus on the ones I find most interesting, hoping you’ll ask me questions about the rest. They are:
the condition of women and legal challenges to equal rights; the Royals, and some facts about Jordan; the Palestinians; and the veil. I want to use as my touchstone a woman in her 40s who kept appearing and re-appearing throughout the week, turning up in different meetings we had, and finally entertaining us at a formal sit-down dinner at her parents’ house for 65 women. Here, I’ll call her Nasneen Al-Ali.
The “Condition of Women” Question
First and foremost, I learned about the situation for women in Jordan, and I learned not to over-generalize or to say, “This is the condition of Arab women in the Middle East.” There are many differences between women, say, in Yemen and in Jordan, and throughout Middle Eastern countries. Much of what I write here centers on the role of women, since we, a group of women, went to Jordan to talk with our counterparts; we spoke neither to any men nor to any ordinary people in the Arab street, though we would have liked to do so.
On our second night in Amman, we attended a dinner for about 40 women at the home of a prominent Minister. He had gathered for us members of the Jordanian chapter of the International Women’s Forum, an organization supporting leadership networks for women in government, business, and education. We sat at small tables and spoke about our lives, over a feast of lamb, bulgar, stuffed zucchini, yoghurt, in a blur of white marble, men in gloves, white tablecloths and draped dining room chairs. The women wanted to know as much about us as we about them, and conversation flowed easily. Most, if not all, had been educated at least partly abroad, in the States and England, Beirut or Damascus. It was obvious that they didn’t want us to speak only about their problems. My dinner partner said to me, “Don’t tell us that we’re the only women with cultural problems. Tell us about yours, as well.”
I spoke for a long time with the soft-spoken woman on my left, Nasneen, who had received law degrees from the University of Jordan and the London School of Economics, and had spent a year as a visiting researcher at Harvard Law School. I learned later that she has a vita a mile long and practices law and advocacy for human rights and judicial reform. But that first night, we spoke about western assumptions about Islamic oppression of women and what looks to westerners like a completely patriarchal society. We agreed that there were tremendous problems for women in Arab cultures, but she cautioned me that the tenets of patriarchy are nowhere in the Koran, only in the customs, and, therefore, open to eradication. “Was she just defending her religion?” I wondered that first night.
I told her that we’d been cautioned in our briefing at the U.S. Embassy earlier that day that we should not draw conclusions about Jordan based on the women were going to meet. “Don’t forget,” the consul said,” That you’ll be meeting the top .1 percent of women in Jordan, and that the other 99.9 percent see these women as Martians, from another planet. Nasneen disagreed, saying “When I go into the villages to explain the laws that oppress women, I speak in tribal terms, and they understand me.”
Legal Challenges to Equal Rights
As frame for our discussions about the status of women in Jordan, we first met with two pioneering women lawyers in their sixties. One, former head of the Jordan National Commission for Women, is an expert on the status of women in Jordan, and has been a powerhouse in working with the Parliament, Royal Palace and NGOs on legislative, educational, administrative, and cultural reform to advance women’s status. In the fight for decades, she had worked closely with Queen Noor in the 1980s. When we finished speaking with her, we met with a previous Minister of Information whose achievements include the amendment of the penal code for women, and important work on human rights, violence against women, and corruption.
From these lawyers we learned that Jordan has impressively improved literacy among women in the last fifty-six years. In 1950 nine women were illiterate for every one who was literate; this has been exactly reversed by 2006. Now, one woman is illiterate for every nine who are literate. But in the private sphere, there still exists limited mobility for women. The patriarchal family structure is the leading impediment to progress for women in all institutions. For corroboration, we later noticed women in public life only in Amman. In the countryside no women worked in the hotels, restaurants, shops, or tourist attractions. One of lawyers noted, “We worry that, despite positive gains, family life is better, but women are not entering the labor force, political, or public life in general.”
Even within Arab countries, Jordan has the lowest participation rates for women in the workforce. Dual careers are mostly lacking, though more women then men go to the universities. And in the political sphere, women are largely absent from local and regional leadership positions. “Democracy is not always helpful to women, because it allows Islamists to infiltrate and take over political structures,” said one of the lawyers.
Laws are becoming more protective of women’s rights in Jordan, but they have a long way to go, and many women in public office accept the status quo. For example, a woman’s pension ends with her death, whereas men can pass on their pensions to their wives and children. Women are allowed to inherit only one half the amount their brothers do; this is an improvement. Formerly, they inherited only one eighth. Children in Islamic societies belong to the father, not the mother, and there are problems of nationality if the mother is Palestinian.
Both lawyers spoke about the penal laws concerning honor crimes, much reported in the media. Both noted that, though rates are frighteningly increasing, there are no more than 20 killings a year, and there are more serious problems. Both women felt that Jordan was being scapegoated on this topic for its openness in discussing honor crimes, and that there were even more serious and widespread problems to address. They resent the sensationalizing of honor crimes. Both lawyers insisted that honor crimes are not a part of Islamic law. They urged us to think of women’s issues, not as Islam-dependent, but as issues common to all women.
They spoke at length about the parliamentary situation. Women received the vote in the 1950s, but until 1988, there was no Parliament to vote for, although the country was founded as a constitutional monarchy. This body is presently full of traditional thinkers, and not particularly helpful to women. A law requiring a quota of 20 percent women representatives, recently passed, has not achieved anything close to that percentage. At the moment there are only six women in the parliament, and they regularly vote against issues favorable to women, fearing that otherwise they’ll lose their seats. We were surprised to learn that voting records of representatives are not public knowledge, so representatives can’t be held accountable.
Both lawyers noted that, as legal supports for women’s rights have increased, discrimination has taken on more refined, subtle forms. In Islam, relations among men and women are to be “equitable, not equal,” allowing for interpretations hostile to women. Their final word: “Women are giving up their Islamic rights to their husbands presently. And the wealthy women of Jordan support philanthropic, rather than women’s, causes. More and more women are leaving us, and women drive democracy in the region.” And with Hamas in power in the West Bank, she said,” It will be very difficult to hold onto women’s freedoms now. Laws against divorce and abortion, and for polygamy, continue to oppress us.”
The Royals, and Some Facts about Jordan
Thoroughly depressed by our visits to the lawyers, we revived our spirits by thinking about our upcoming meeting with Princess Basma. Our lawyers had told us that Princess Basma has done more to advance women’s rights than anyone in the kingdom besides Hussein. She had recently succeeded in appointing the first woman judge in 1995, and now there are 30 women out of the 450 judges in key courts. They also asserted that the Hashemites were more responsible for the success of women than the feminists. Many of us already knew about Queen Noor , the American Lisa Halaby, whom everyone in the States seems to have met, but we didn’t know that Noor was only one of a large group of royals who continue to work hard to modernize the country. Jordan may be a benevolent dictatorship, but, as the art historian Princess Wijdan Ali put it, key royals take on great work for their people, “not as a choice but a responsibility.”
Princess Basma, sister of King Hussein, is prominently mentioned in Queen Noor’s autobiography, Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life. She is possibly the most powerful change agent in the country besides the present king and queen, because she has forged strong relationships with the younger generation of activist women we were meeting at glittering dinners. They obviously love and admire her. To our long meeting she brought a group of these prominent younger women who work with The Hashemite Fund for Human Development and the Jordanian National Commission for Women. A woman in her sixties, she comes across as brisk, friendly and warm. She enters the room accompanied discreetly by her bodyguard. Everyone stands, and she takes time to come around the room to each of us, shaking our hands, looking into our eyes, welcoming us. She speaks with a crisp British accent, without notes, providing us with a clear context for information that already threatens to overwhelm us, even on this second day.
“ Jordan is in transition, undergoing a period of reform for women, responding to King Abdullah’s commitment,” she tells us. “He said, ‘No economic development is possible until women take their rights.’ People have difficulty understanding that the government is pushing decentralization, cutting back on public services in order to avoid dependence and encourage self-reliance. But poverty and unemployment continue to be huge problems.”
Jordan has no natural resources except for phosphate and potash, and, luckily, many NGOs are stepping into the vacuum with educational, environmenta, and business ventures. Princess Basma noted that Jordan is always caught in its turbulent regional climate, and that this defies attempts to plan. But, she quickly added, Jordanians are committed not to think of themselves as victims, but to develop their strong human resources, tourism, oil refining and the like.
I looked across the conference table, and there was Nasneen, the young crusading lawyer I had sat with at dinner two nights before. I was surprised to see her so soon again, and in this quite different setting. Princess Basma asked all the representatives to speak, and when the head of one of the unions insisted on speaking in Arabic, the princess singled out Nasneen, “one of our leading female lawyers,” to translate. She listened intently to her colleague, and then produced translations that sounded flawless to us. Clearly she was a favorite of the princess, and I took note of that.
The Jordanian women were universally friendly and open to any questions we wanted to ask. Here, we asked the princess why it was so difficult in Jordan to bring about changes for women’s rights. Although both The Jordanian National Commission for Women and the Hashemite Fund work to empower women by doing grass roots reform and teaching skills that will help change attitudes, she was candid in telling us that there are many obstacles. Many laws, for example, discriminate against women and she was frank in saying that pro-Islamists in government still control women’s bodies through laws supporting polygamy, and opposing divorce and abortion, and other laws concerning nationality, social security, retirement, and endemic violence against women and children! We wanted to remember that, although some of these challenges to the status of women have been met in the States, we also continue to suffer from domestic violence and abuse issues that are hard to eradicate, even in a democracy. We heard again and again that both Islam and its texts don’t oppress women, but ways in which they are interpreted do. They can be easily manipulated, used to control others, because every value is included in the Koran, and if taken out of context, can oppress.
At the end of our visit with Princess Basma, she said, “Women drive democracy in the region, but the system of corruption makes it difficult for them to advance in the worlds of business and government. Because they are newcomers to this game, they don’t have the connections and influence that tribal ways depend on. To secure big money and influence women must accept publicity and take on the authorities, and, since their culture has socialized them to hold back from doing so, men, step in and take over .
Most casual tourists visit Amman for two days, and then travel south to Petra for another day or so. We came for seven days in Amman, three in Petra. This made a great difference, because we assimilated ideas from several perspectives, and got to know some of the women we met. We also learned some key facts about the country. First, its present identity was created only in 1946, when the British Mandate expired and the country changed its name from Transjordan (across the Jordan) to Jordan. Its kings came initially from Syria, and had to construct a national myth to justify the continuing monarchy that descended from the first King Abdullah, through King Hussein to his son, the present King Abdullah. There’s a strong belief that this myth of national identity is crucial to holding the country together today, and the monarchy does not take kindly to being mocked by its neighbors for being less than homegrown and legitimate. The monarchy has withstood several threats to its existence, including a strong nationalist challenge from pan-Arab nationalist parties in the 1950s. But it has survived because it has listened to the will of its people, has assimilated their needs and has worked very, very hard to meet them. Its map has changed over the last sixty years, but it presently has a stable boundary with Israel, a less stable border with Iraq and Saudi Arabia. We learned that Jordan didn’t disengage from the West Bank until 1988.
Members of the group hiking at Petra; arrow in
hotel drawer in Amman shows the direction of Mecca for daily prayers (photo by Marjorie McHenry Bride ‘61).
Population shifts are fascinating and difficult in Jordan. One of the great results of our war in Iraq is that Jordan has become the staging ground . There are between 300,00 and 500,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, and I’ve recently read that as the middle class increasingly flees Iraq, the Iraqi population in Jordan has increased, or will increase, to one million people, this in a country that now holds only 5 million people. The Iraqis arrived in several waves, and consist of both the business elite (they’ve done very well) and the young Shia males who work in construction. A third group consists of Iraqi/Syrian Christians. With them has come the problem of speculative real estate, or “hot money”, and a stock market boom. Jordanians have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there’s been an infusion of new money that has helped the economy. On the other, there’s no city planning, and Jordanians sometimes feel crowded out, and resent
that Iraqis seem to be getting more help than Jordanians are, swamping schools and facilities. Only 50 percent of the population of Jordan consists today of native Jordanians.
Only 3 percent of the country is arable, and the average Jordanian consumes 1/550th the amount of water a year that an average American does. There are 5 million people in Jordan and 1.5 million of them live in Amman, which is the most arable section. Jordan has no natural resources, and no oil. And only about 50 percent of Jordanians are Jordanian.
I learned a great deal about the plight of the Palestinians while I was in Jordan, and learned that not all Palestinians are poor, uneducated, and live in refugee camps. But I also learned that every Palestinian I met hated the Israelis with a deep and abiding hatred, though the Hashemite kings have worked hard to settle their differences, border and otherwise, with the government of Israel, and has a generally very good, strong relationship with this neighbor. But, as Nasneen told me, “We make a distinction between Jews and Israeli Jews.”
Before I went to Jordan, I had read a great deal about the fact that many American Jews think that Israel has lost its ‘moral compass’ over its treatment of its native Palestinian population. In Jordan, everywhere we went we met prosperous, displaced Palestinians who had become part of the Jordanian elite and were forbidden to return to their homeland. Indeed Machmud Abbas has a home in Amman! Wealthy, powerful Palestinians are completely integrated into Jordanian society and contribute tremendously to the culture of their adopted country, working for human rights and a civil society, as we learned from our dinners in their homes. But scratch the surface and one hit a huge reservoir of anger and resentment toward the Israelis who had taken their land, a bitterness that knew few boundaries.
Our learning about the Palestinians climaxed on the day we visited Widad Kawar, a woman born in Bethlehem who has become the major collector of traditional garb, textiles and jewelry from village, Bedouin and cities in the whole area—Syria, northern Palestine, rural Jordan. Her mission is to document these traditional pieces before they disappear. She has collected and documented these styles for forty years, and now possesses over 1000 costumes and accessories.
To make her presentation, she dressed us first in selections of her gorgeous abayas, head dresses and jewelry. Then, once we had fallen in love with them, she told us, “The Israelis destroyed this life after 1948, ruining the souk, and village culture.” She described the way in which festive processions in full regalia were displaced by the food line. She read from her oral histories of two Palestinian women.
The first was a Palestinian woman who lived on her family’s land on the West bank. Slowly, it disappeared. Initially, she said, “The land was gold, and gave us gold.” The story of its gradual loss was told in heartbreaking detail. After 1948, half their land, and their well, was taken by the Israelis. After the 1967 war, their whole town was occupied, and people were reduced to farming small plots. Many left for Jordan; the others coped with smaller and smaller plots, and their livelihood was reduced from selling produce from the farm that had been their family’s for generations, to cultivating an herb garden , and, finally, scratching out a living from selling lemon seeds. Today, the Israeli wall has reduced her life further, and she now squeezes through a door in the wall where there were once endless fields with 8000 olive trees. Now there are no trees, and the town is completely isolated from the surrounding countryside.
We also heard a brief account of a Bedouin woman from the Jordan valley. Part of a large tribe, she lived by the clear water of the Jordan River before it was turned to mud by the Israeli diversion of the river. The family used to plant indigo for dyes; now there are no crops at all. The children have moved to the city, leaving the old women and men behind. “Our children are living in a dangerous cultural vacuum. We must preserve our beautiful culture,” said she.
Widah had no room in her presentation to speak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and her stories sounded to me like angry anti-Israeli propaganda. But, on the other hand, taken alone, I had no reason to doubt their veracity. I was familiar with the other side to the story, but, for the first time, I was hearing the Palestinian side. The next day, one of the women on our trip, an observant Jew, came up to me and asked, abruptly, “ What am I going to tell my husband?” She meant that her husband was a strong Zionist, and what she was hearing in Jordan gave her strong cognitive disarray. What WAS she going to tell her husband? I thought it was probably a good thing that we were gaining a far more nuanced view of the Middle East and its problems than we heard at home from our media.
On the last night of our trip, we heard a lecture from the political scientist who was traveling with us. She pointed out that we had heard mostly from the wealthy, influential Palestinian class in Jordan, who had lost their property and were in a lot of pain as a result of their exile. She noted the unfair tax code in Jordan that allows the wealthy to keep most of their money. She also reminded us that most Israelis support disengagement from Gaza and the West Bank, but that the situation, it’s fair to say, is a mess. She was fairly pessimistic about any good outcome to the situation, as any sensitive reading of our daily press will corroborate.
Jordan beyond the Veil
And, lastly, I tried to understand the whole question of the veil, what it means, why women wear it. In many ways, the issue of veiling became a symbol for me of our differences and of my presuppositions. My traveling companion accused me of having a “visceral reaction” when I saw a woman in burka. In the airport I saw a woman completely enshrouded in black. The women of Yemen wear black from head to toe, but their eyes are free. This woman had no eyes. She had no face. She was a pillar of black. She was traveling with a young husband and child. You couldn’t see her at all. And my friend who sat near her in the plane told me that she sat bolt upright for the 12-hour flight from Amman, neither reading nor listening to her headset, nor watching the movie, nor sleeping. When dinner came, she reached out from under her veil and brought the food to her mouth under her black shroud.
I had a hard time seeing this as anything less than oppression, passivity, the obliteration of self. Yet, at dinner in the elegant, sophisticated homes we visited in Amman, there were several women wearing the head scarf , who told us that they donned it since the Iraq invasion as a protest against the west, imperialism, colonialism. We
heard that before our invasion of Iraq 5 percent of Jordanian women were veiled. Now it’s 65 percent and a large percentage of them are university women. They wear it to confound the stereotype that veiled women are not liberated. They wear it out of deference to their religion, and to show their identity and solidarity with their Arab sisters. Some choose it even against the wishes of their husbands and fathers, as a sign of their progressive independence from their liberated families who shun it. And some seem to wear the veil as a seductive, mysterious, sexual signal, saying that only the husband can see her.
On our last night in Jordan we were entertained at an elegant dinner party at the home of my new friend, Nasneen. By the time we met for the third time, I had become convinced that Nasneen had all the earmarks of being groomed to be Jordan’s first woman prime minister, and I think that’s why you’ll hear of her again. Nasneen had invited sixty-two of her friends and colleagues who were changing the world for women in Jordan to an elegant dinner. Many of the guests were Palestinian émigrés, and all looked like fashionable Parisians, in form-fitting black dresses, glorious bright silk jackets, sheer stockings, high, high heels, perfect hair , make-up and jewelry. I sat next to an especially attractive woman in a shocking pink jacket. She was warm, well-informed, friendly. She told me over dinner that once a year she dons the full burka in order to make pilgrimage to Mecca, she said, “as a religious expression.” She said the burka brings her closer to her god. Her husband doesn’t approve. She does it anyway.
So, whereas I assumed that the veil signaled a return to fundamentalism, of the oppression of women, of dependence and passivity and the obliteration of self, my new friend said,” The veil signifies many different things. It is possible to be veiled AND a feminist.”
By way of conclusion, a few thoughts about the situation in Iraq and its influence on Jordan. There’s no doubt that we have stirred the pot in the whole Middle East by our actions in Iraq. In Jordan, the king supports our mission to Iraq, but the people do
not. They despise our present administration. On the other hand, it’s true that they don’t want us to leave Iraq because they are terrified of a Shia takeover in Iraq which would bleed into Jordan. The worst case scenario for Jordan would be for Iraq to break into three parts, a Kurdish north, a Sunni center, and a Shia south, an idea I see increasingly floated in our press these days. If the population is bursting in Amman now, that’s nothing compared to the Iraqi exodus that could occur, destabilizing Jordan. But more than anything they fear a fundamentalist Iran.
Prospects in Jordan are both tentative and tantalizing. The close ties between Hamas and Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood are important because at least 50 percent of Jordanians are of Palestinian descent. In an April 2006t New York Times Magazine article, the writer Juan Goytisolo speaks of the “seeds of modernity” he sees in the Arab world. Jordan has much more than seeds. But Jordan is 97 percent desert. Can these seeds continue to bloom there? In the desert of Middle Eastern fundamentalism, flowers of freedom are always in danger, either of drying up from slow thirst, or sudden uprooting.
The impressive women I met in Jordan are truly living the contradictions. They are sitting on a precipice, but they are full of hope and are working as hard as they can for constructive change and improvement for the lives of all women. When I left after the sumptuous feast on the last night of our stay, Nasneen said to me, “You’ve learned about our culture, made of contrasts. Be our ambassadors, and tell your country that all women are the same. They only want peace.”
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