Letter From…Amman

Having returned to Jordan’s capital, Amman, for a second term, I have now finessed the brief cultural differences I serve up when faced with various questions along the lines of “What’s different?”. Among my favorites have been, “Do they have pizza?” and “Is fun legal?”, both of which I can answer in the affirmative.

It is very possible to live what can be called an almost entirely “westernized” lifestyle in Amman – shopping malls, night clubs and fast food joints are all readily available. When surrounded by such familiar comforts it is easy to forget the differences between Jordanian and British culture, but they are often betrayed in the most subtle of social interactions.  On getting in a taxi a man must always climb into the seat next to the driver but a woman should sit in the back seat. One male classmate made the error of attempting to shake our hijab-wearing teacher’s hand, leading her to flush noticeably and awkwardly fumble in response.

As with the cases above, most of these differences stem from gender. The status of women and relationship between the sexes varies enormously throughout neighborhoods of Amman as well as Jordan as a whole. This might seem obvious enough, but the uncovered Queen Rania’s many jaunts across the pages of OK! magazine give the impression that most Jordanian women are free to dress as the please and live independently from husbands and male relatives. This is not true.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that even wealthy, middle-class Jordanians often face what British girls would see has heavy restrictions. At one gathering where everyone was at least university age, all of the (again, non-headscarf wearing) girls suddenly got up to leave at 11.30. When I asked one heavily intoxicated male guest of the same age why they where all leaving, he explained they were all subject to 12 o’clock curfews – an inconvenience he did not have to contend with.

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If this is the standard procedure for wealthy, educated women I imagine that life for the poorer is far more constrained. Women’s status in Jordanian law certainly affords them little scope to battle for autonomy. Although verbal and physical harassment are both illegal, this small concession is overshadowed by far greater legal oversights.

Perhaps the most horrific is article 308, known by its detractors as “crime 308”, which allows a rapist to avoid prosecution if he agrees to marry his victim, and then stay married to her, for at least five years. This law is supported by 55.8% of the Jordanian population, who see it as a win-win situation for rapist and victim, which gives a very upsetting picture of Jordanian society.

Perpetrators of so-called “honour killings”-when a woman is murdered for having an illicit relationship with a man in a way considered to be shameful to her family, are also able to escape harsh punishment. If the victim’s family do not wish for the murderer to receive a harsh sentence, they may get away with as little as three months spent in prison – a common occurrence since those who carry out the crimes tend to come from the victim’s own family. Depressingly, a recent study of secondary school pupils in Amman showed that almost half of boys and one-fifth of girls believed that honor killings were justified.

Protests and campaigns against this harsh treatment of women are far and few between. Women and a few men have protested against the article which bars children born to foreign husbands from inheriting Jordanian citizenship, but presumably the stigma attached to calling out for women’s rights in a patriarchal country where freedom of assembly is still relatively constrained discourages many from making their voices heard.

With sexism so entrenched in society, and defenders of women’s rights understandably unwilling or struggling to make their voices heard, I feel it’s not too culturally imperialist to suggest that countries where women have more rights should pressurize Jordan to shape up.  In 2013, Jordan ranked 6th highest amongst countries receiving US aid. Surely the international community, if it wanted to, could encourage the Jordan to stop treating half of its population as second-class citizens?