Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I was proposed to for the first time

Am mildly surprised that it took me this long. Normally, foreign women get proposed to fairly regularly here.

I was buying strawberries for my host family in "downtown" Mafraq, and the strawberry vendor realized that I was an ajnabia (foreigner). He asked if I was from Ukraine. I told him I was from America. Are you married? Nope. Do you want to marry me? No, thanks. You don't like Arabs? Um...

The vendor tells his friends that he's talking with an American, and they seem nonpulsed. I pay for my strawberries. Ma'salama (goodbye).

"Are you married?" is a pretty common getting-to-know-you question here. It falls somewhere in-between "where are you from?" and "how old are you?"

When in taxis, I sometimes lie. But, usually, honesty gets the best of me. In Mafraq, I answer that I'm not married, and explain that I hope to finish my Master's first. The women are quite supportive.

A manager of a local NGO here, for instance, dropped this detail when introducing me to her colleagues: "Mashallah, she's waiting until after she gets her masters to get married. Mashallah." (Mashallah, in this case, meaning something along the lines of "that's so cool.")

It's not uncommon for women here to graduate from school, secure a job, and then get married. At least, a few of my host sisters have pursued this route. It's also not especially uncommon for women to get married before graduation. I spent the day at a girls' secondary school, for example, and met a 16-year-old who was engaged. "Congratulations" didn't roll off of my tongue very easily.

Anecdotally, marriage ages have been rising over the past few generations. I met a 60-something-year-old guy who married his wife when she was 13 and he was 20. ("But she was a strong 13-year-old," he tells me.) My 40-something-year-old host mother got married when she was in her mid-teens. Her oldest daughter got married a few months ago; she's in her mid-twenties.

When we talked about marriage, my host mother asserted that she got married too young, and she wants her daughters to wait. And her daughters want to. My 19-year-old host sister, for instance, plans to graduate from university and work for several years before getting engaged. Mashallah. 

If I were writing a more academic blog, I might mention how Jordan's poor economy is driving the age of marriage up for men and women. Men are expected to have a job, pay for a house, and buy future wives hundreds (or thousands) of dollars worth of gold as a sort of marital insurance. Without jobs, these financial obligations are impossible to fulfill. So guys wait, too.

If I were writing a more activist blog, I might criticize the socially-enforced value of a woman's virginity here. While individuals take different stances on premarital encounters (ranging from talking to sex), culture dictates that a woman's first time ought to be after her wedding. I've heard the story, often, of a couple in love, planning to marry, who decide to have sex. Then, the guy dumps the girl because he wouldn't want to marry anyone who would have sex before marriage. Ya haram. He has no repercussions. She undergoes hymen reconstruction surgery or, maybe, buys a Chinese hymen. (Actually no, Chinese hymens are not that popular here yet, but I take whatever opportunity I can to publicize them. They could save lives, literally.)

Maybe I'll write more about these things later, but for now I've gotta sleep! Don't know who'll propose to me tomorrow. More updates within a week, I promise.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

my dad wants me to wear hijab

Nope, neither of us is Muslim.

Last week, I moved from Amman (Jordan's liberal capital) to al-Manshiyyeh, a small town outside of al-Mafraq. It's more conservative than what I'm used to, to say the least.

I was advised to make sure I cover my arms all the way down to my wrists, keep my hair back, and wear closed-toed shoes. Walking with guys is a no-go. Acknowledging a guy you know in the street is inadvisable.

Before leaving, I chatted with my dad about where I was going. He's given up trying to influence my travel plans (no, dad, I still don't want to study Arabic in Israel), but he did articulate some concerns about travelling to a small town. Ergo the hijab suggestion.

I'm wary of writing about hot-button Middle Eastern topics. Western media and attention fixates, unproductively, on a small list of subjects: the hijab, Islamists, Israel/Palestine, oil. As important as some of these things are, I'm hesitant to write about them for fear of further exoticizing the Middle East.

I don't want to write about hijabs because the Middle East is more than just a dichotomy of hijab-wearers and non-hijab-wearers. I don't want to write about hijabs because they are too often used as a sloppy proxy for discussion of women's rights in the Middle East. I don't want to write about hijabs because there are far more urgent, far more damaging challenges facing people here.

More concerning to me, at the moment, are gender-specific rules about where you're allowed to go and when you're allowed to go there. I haven't tried testing the boundaries, because I'm living with a family and don't want to tarnish their reputation. But, in general, women don't:

  • walk on the streets after sunset (unless with a male relative);
  • sit in coffee shops (there are none for women, but there are many for men);
  • play soccer on the street. 

In the interest of painting a holistic picture, here's the list for men. Men don't:

  • go to female-only hair cutting salons.

I've tried stretching my notions of cultural relativism to rationalize this, but I just can't.

Personally, I understand cultures having different conceptions of modesty. There is something attractive, in fact, about men and women de-sexualizing themselves a bit by wearing more clothes. As a high school kid, I remember shivering with other girls during the winter because, inconveniently, cute clothes leave skin exposed. I recognize that we are all subject to weird cultural rules dictating what we're supposed to wear.

But freedom of movement is a whole other story. Think about the things you wouldn't be able to do if you couldn't go outside at night? Or hang out in public spaces? When I speak with people about this, they explain that these norms are for women's protection. Men are ravenous and uncontrollable, I've been told, and women don't go out at night because it's too dangerous. But if men are this bestial, why do they get all of the outside world? Why not share it? A few nights for women, a few nights for men?

Admittedly, much of my inspiration for this comes from my sense of limitation right now. So take my words with a grain of salt. Not all of the Middle East is like this. My host brother is nice. He goes outside to buy me food at night. Gender is messed up in America, too. My goal, I suppose, is to articulate what I feel is an actual limitation facing women in small-town Jordan right now.

Back to the hijab. I don't wear one. When walking around town, I'm usually the only post-pubescent female who's hair is showing. It's kind of weird at first but, honestly, I don't think that putting on a hijab would change anything. My backpack and waterbottle betray my Western roots. In fact, I think that putting on a hijab would arouse suspicions. So I put my hair in a ponytail and declare victory. Because the real battle lies elsewhere.

my goodbye blog for FoEME

Is here. Check it out!