Monday, November 3, 2014

Ponderings on Gender

In writing about my experience wearing nikaab, I find numerous challenges.  How to write about gender in a region where the emotions attached to gender roles, masculinity and femininity are so strong?  How to negotiate the clash of culture and religion with their simultanoues melding in the creation of gender norms that absolutely repulse some, yet are held by others as pillars of constancy in a rapidly changing world?

How can I accurately portray the gender roles that exist in the Arab Muslim society in which I find myself – recognizing also that the world of southern Jordan that I experience on a regular basis – Aqaba, Wadi Rum, Tweisi – with the rare visits to Rashiddiyeh, Wadi Musa and Disi are full of smaller communities, families and tribes each of whom take a slightly different view of religion, culture and gender?  In Tweisi, where I live, most women cover their faces.  In Disi, a mile away, most women do not.  After eight years in Jordan, my general understanding of the unwritten rules of this society has allowed me to move past generalizations around Arab or Muslim society to recognize that each micro-community of human beings has its own variation on national and cultural rules.  More and more, I find myself experiencing others simply as humans living on this planet in a multitude of ways.

Women and our place in society has evolved rapidly over the past 100 years as we move from the private space of the home and family into a more visible public space that, until recently, was occupied predominantly by men.  Gender roles are changing on an international scale and the region in which I live is just one of many that is experiencing a struggle with these changes.  While gender inequality exists throughout the world, I believe that the Arab Islamic dress codes of the Middle East call particular attention to inequality in this region because they are such a visible expression of the perceived repression of women.  Who is doing the repressing?  Time and again I hear people from my own educated Western society state: ‘well, men force women to dress that way.  How can you accept to live in a society such as this?  Don’t you think that Islam is a backward religion?  How can you call yourself Muslim when your religion advocates such repression?’

I have yet to meet a Muslim woman who has been forced to cover herself.  It’s just not that simple.  The nuances of social rules, limitations and restrictions are such that women (and men) may be expected or encouraged to dress a certain way … as is the case in any society.  Women cover themselves for many reasons – and yes – one of those is due to the strict interpretations of Islam that emanate out of Saudi Arabia, due to the practice and efforts of the well-financed Muslim Brotherhood … a member once told me he’d gift me a scarf, if I covered my head with it and more often than not the simple desire of people just wanting to do the right thing and to be that truly devout Muslim in front of their friends and relatives in a society in which god and religion play a fundamental role.  Again – I should note that southern Jordan is its own unique community with its own unique brand and interpretation.  It’s been years since I spent a long period of time in Amman and whenever I do visit – which is usually to the western, westernized part of town – I’m struck by the extreme contrast in values between urban, liberal Amman and the rural towns and villages of the south.  But isn’t this the case in most countries?  Brooklyn is worlds away from Cazenovia, New York.  So what are the values systems that I’ve encountered around women in their role in society in the towns and villages, taxis and buses, streets and alleyways, deserts and mountains of rural, southern Jordan?

In these spaces, women care for family and men are bread-winners – women occupy the private space of the home managing child-rearing and other domestic tasks.  Men negotiate the public space –working in tourism, for the government, as traders of legal and, sometimes, illegal goods.  While many women work in the public space, more often than not a woman’s professional life ends when she has children or with marriage.  In the villages, people marry young and family life is at the core of the society.  Respectable women do not voluntarily wander into the world of men – and when they do they negotiate these space with incredible care - being sure to protect their honor and the honor of their families.  As a result, nikaab is, for many, a way of preserving the private space while travelling through the public space.  It’s kind of like taking your tent or turtle shell with you as go, a means of softening the interactions withoutside world.  While the norm for women is to exist openly in the private space, there are exceptions to every rule and every generalization.  In my early years in southern Jordan, I worked with the headmistress of a girls’ school in a desert town who was known throughout the area as a very public force with which to be reckoned.  Shakseet-ha gawaiyeh,’ people told me with awe in their voices.  ‘Her character is strong.’  Over the years, I’ve met a number of women who occupy roles in the public space.  Their common characteristic has typically been possession of a strong character both in reputation and in reality.   

In a similar yet even more restricted way, respectable men do not to enter the private space of women.  When their wives entertain friends, men typically leave the home or confine themselves to one room in order to ensure the comfort of the female guest.  Each home has a guest room for male visitors – corralling their manliness in one corner of the house.  In a recent conversation around the Ryan Reynolds’ film ‘The Change-up” in which Ryan Reynolds and Jason Batemen switch bodies and lives for a few weeks, I discussed with a male friend what we would do if he and I switched lives for a day.  ‘If I were a woman?’ he pondered.  ‘I’d go to see what the women do!”  I paused, empty-handed – I know what the men do in Jordan – no need to use a fictional body swap to see that.  What a privilege to be able to access both worlds!

 So given these strict, universally understood rules around gender segregation, where does that leave a single, foreign woman in southern Jordan?  At times, a beauty, at times, a curse but ultimately a space to be negotiated with creativity and compassion.  I'll let you ponder that thought and return to it in my next post - as I continue to reflect and share on the nikaab story.  Enjoy your day!

Public Space, October 2013