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Arab States of Mind

A letter from your man in Amman on… fashion

Anyone who has ever watched a mid-noughties rom-com, is familiar with the idea that you are what you wear.  We might have moved on from Geeks v Jocks but how you dress still sends a message. It tells the world everything from your age, to your occupation, to your interests, to whether your mum still buys your PJs.

The cultural, and individual, importance of clothing has never been so clear to me as when I came to live in Amman. The city is a melting pot of tradition and modernity; of western super-brands with local flair. Here you can see Balenciagas flash out from under a stylish thawb and keffiyeh combo, or a woman wearing a Burberry scarf as her hijab.

Disappointingly, one thing many people asked me before I came was whether I would have to wear a burqa. No, Aunty Barbara, of course I don’t. I mostly wear a t-shirt and jeans. I also normally choose to cover my legs and shoulders in public for three reasons: to avoid sunburn (I’m extremely pale), as a futile attempt to avoid the omnipresent Jordanian male gaze (I have great legs), and out of cultural respect (I study Arabic <3 xoxo).

In some places today, women’s clothing is controlled. The abaya is obligatory in Saudi Arabia, women in Iran must cover their hair, and in France women can’t wear what they want on the beach.  All state control of female clothing is a symptom of a wider system of international female oppression. Sexism is not only a Middle Eastern problem, we just sensationalise it when it manifests in different ways.

Aunty Barbara was also conflating a set of varied traditions of cultural and religious dress into a scary and homogenous Other. Recently, one of my Tunisian classmates forbade her daughter from wearing a black niqab. She told her that if she wanted to fully veil, she could wear the traditional Tunisian sefseri from her own culture.  This is a cream-coloured silk robe that covers the whole body and is held with one hand. It’s a full body veil worn by Muslim women, and yet it doesn’t carry the same stigma of oppression and terror that the people who are scared of the burqa reinforce.  

Generally in Jordan, dressing modestly is encouraged for everyone. The only run in with the fashion police that I’ve heard of is when a male classmate was stopped and asked very nicely to button his shirt all the way up. Most adult Muslim women here do wear the hijab, and according to our teachers, this is cultural as well as religious. Some women wear it with an abaya and some wear it with skinny jeans.

Personally, the biggest clothing issue that I had was practical. I had been warned by many previous students that Amman can get bitterly, bitterly, cold in the winter, so I pretty much exclusively packed winter clothing. I arrived in early September and immediately had a (very foreseeable) 35-degree problem. So, I had to go shopping. At first it was a struggle to find good clothes. In the malls, imported clothes from European high street brands are expensive and I personally can’t stand the live-laugh-love vibe of many local boutiques.

The answer wasn’t to buy locally woven linen kaftans and beaded sandals; the solution came in the form of a very Oxford look. In the Friday clothing market (souk al-juma3) I found a treasure trove of funky shirts, varsity sweaters and early-noughties beaded bodices. It’s a cross between a kilo sale and your nan’s attic with everything from rugby spikes to Persian carpets. 2000 miles away, I’ve never been more at home. For less than three pounds you can dress like your parents did in the 80s, and isn’t that the Oxford dream?

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