Who says who’s free?

I arrived in Jordan with the firm belief that life would be less free here than it was back in the UK. This belief was, in fact, so ingrained within me that I didn’t even realise I possessed it, let alone think to question it.

Indeed at first I saw nothing to prompt me to question it. Even before I moved to Jordan I began to feel incredibly claustrophobic. I’d been reading the guidebooks: don’t show skin, don’t wear your hair down, don’t smile at men, they told me. I went shopping for appropriate clothes and a year’s supply of hair ties: it didn’t feel like me and I felt restricted in a way I’d never really felt restricted before.

Once I had arrived, I felt trapped by the street harassment which prevented me, at first, from venturing out alone after dark; I felt trapped in the heat by the need to keep covered; I felt trapped by the lack of any real public transport which left me searching for taxis to get around; I felt trapped by the inappropriate questions aimed at me once I’d found a taxi (about whether I drink, have sex, have a boyfriend, want a husband and so forth). On the 15th September 2014, I wrote in my diary, “I want to write that I’m feeling exhilarated and full of the spirit of adventure, but actually I’m feeling very fragile, a bit on edge… It’s hard because I can’t do what I normally do when I feel like this: I can’t go for a run, or go for a walk by myself without hassle, or take a long, hot bath.” (Water is very limited in Jordan.)

As I settled into life here, however, my perspective began to change, or at least become more complex. Is life less free in Jordan than in the UK? Or does my own life here only feel less free because of the specific freedoms that I have been conditioned to value most highly?

It was a conversation I had with a nineteen year old Jordanian girl that really prompted these thoughts.

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“I’m hoping to go and study in Germany,” she told me, “But I’m worried it’ll be really strict there.” 

“Oh no, it’s definitely much less strict than life here,” I reassured her, “It’s more like the UK.” 

“But what about time?” she asked me. 

“What about it?” I was confused.

 “It matters so much in Europe. Every minute.”

She was thinking about freedom so differently from me. Time in Jordan matters, obviously, but she’s right that there isn’t the same obsession with it as in the UK, and she’s also right that an obsessive need to keep to time could well be considered a restriction of freedom.

“You can wear what you want in Germany and people are less strict about alcohol and clubs and all that kind of thing,” I said.

“Yes but there are so many rules,” she responded,  “like about where you can or cannot go, how fast you can drive, wearing a seat belt, health and safety…”

Again, she was right, and if she values freedom of movement and freedom from bureaucracy more highly than freedom of dress (which she’s perfectly within her rights to do), then I do not doubt that she would find life in the UK far less free than her life in Jordan. Moreover, I’m sure that she would not be the only Jordanian to think this way and my smug assumption that my own country had freedom mostly sussed began to fray at the edges.

On top of this, I became increasingly aware that some of the greatest restrictions on my own freedom in Amman are not evidence of a general lack of freedom among Jordanians or Jordanian women; they are specific restrictions faced by Western women, or women who look “typically” Western. Walking down the streets, minding my own business, I have been followed, touched, spat on, kissed and proposed to. In taxis, I have been treated as nothing more than a sex object. This is not freedom. At first I believed this is the experience of most women in Amman, but eventually I realised that this is (in general) the experience of women who don’t look typically Arab.

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Who’s to blame for this restriction on my freedom? Obviously, each offending man must bear some responsibility, but in general they are acting in accordance with a stereotype of Western women promulgated by my own Western culture — by the music videos, the magazines and the porn films produced by the culture I was born into. When I’m sitting in the back of a taxi and the driver seems surprised that I’m not willing to have sex after chatting for five minutes, or when I’m walking home and a middle-aged man pulls over in his car and seems offended when I refuse to climb inside, I wonder why the hell they ever thought, indeed expected, that I would be so willing. Is it because my own culture never gave them any indication that I would or even could say no? So yes, I may feel significantly less free in Jordan, but how far is my own culture to blame?

This post is obviously not intended to offer any conclusive opinion about whether life in the UK or in Jordan is the most free. It’s just an illustration of how my views and values are being challenged and questioned. I arrived in Jordan with a sense that I was free in the UK and would not be free in Jordan and that that was an uncomplicated issue. Now I wonder why it is that I feel more free in the UK than in Jordan and whether the same culture that I consider to be free is really the driving force behind the harassment obstructing my freedom in daily life in Amman.