Intercultural Note #2 – It’s a Man’s World

There is no question that here in Jordan it’s a man’s world.  There are the obvious indicators:

  • Many women cover their head and wear conservative Islamic clothing, while men wear pretty much whatever they want (although rarely shorts in public and usually conservative by American standards).
  • Only men can sit in the front seat of taxis.  Women have to sit in the back and wrangle the kids.  I would also note that the only working seatbelts are in the front.  So the the women and kids often sit in the back unrestrained (kids) and unprotected (women & kids).
  • In the evening (in our neighborhood) the men sit out on the street shooting the breeze and smoking narghile, while the women stay inside and . . . I’m not sure what b/c I’m a man and don’t know – but imagine it includes a lot of kid-wrangling and cleaning.

After being here a few months I have a few follow-up observations on these three cultural observations (I don’t know if I amright or wrong on any of this – so comments are welcome, esp. from those who have lived here in Jordan).

  • Jordan is actually very progressive (for the Middle East) when it comes to clothing and women. The queen never covers her head (that I know of) and many women can be seen wearing conservative, but Western style attire with no head covering.  Then there are the young 20-somethings who wear their designer jeans and tight shirts and cover their heads.  I haven’t quite figured them out.  And then there are those who cover their head partially and those who go for the full veiling.  The question on my mind is this – who decides? Is it up to the woman or the man? The other question is does it really matter?  For us Westerners it seems to be the ultimate affront for a man to decide what a woman will wear.  But is it really an individual man who is making the decision our an entire culture?   Does that make it right or wrong?
  • When it comes to men and women in taxis it comes down to this – in public non-married men and women do not closely associate together (in terms of physical proximity).  Apparently only 1 or 2 female taxi drivers exist in Amman.  So in almost every case if a woman sat in the front she would be sitting next to a man she is not married to. I think the woman sitting in the back is a way of protecting her honor.  Admittedly there should be working seatbelts back there.  If we ever happen to get one of the women drivers I will happily let my wife sit in the front.  It’s funny, because in the States everyone sits in the backof the taxi so it’s not really an issue.  Here I think it seems bad because there is something that a man is allowed to do that a woman is not.  BUt again, is this restricting her freedom or offering her some sort of protection?  (and protecting something often requires restriction of freedom, but then the question can be asked what if the something/someone does not want/need to be protected).
  • About the men sitting on the street – I wonder if this is a carry-over from bedouin times?  One can argue about how much a man should help women with the cleaning and kid-wrangling, but this network of men on the street offers a very effective community watch program.  And in bedoiun days (that are not so far off – perhaps 2 generations) perhaps this was a very necessary and valid function for men to be outside the house/tent serving as gaurdians of the family.

In a less obvious way the Arabic language indicates that it is a man’s world.  As with many languages there is a marked disctinction between male and female words.  There is the whole issue of objects being male or female (which I don’t get at all), but then things also change depending on if you are talking to a man or a woman.  There are different pronouns and verb endings. Right from saying “Hello, how are you,” many things are different depending on which gender you areaddressing.  There are even different words to indentify your uncles, aunts, and cousins on your father’s side vs. the uncles, aunts, and cousins on your mother’s side.  Your father’s sister is your “3ami” and your mother’s sister is your “xalti“.

Of course, this only indicates a high degree of gender seperation, not necessarily male-bias.  However,I recently came across an interesting linguistic artifact.  The slang term for prison – are you ready for this?  “Bayt Xaltak” or in other words your “Mother’s Sister’s house.”  Yup.  She must have been one bad woman.  Of course in English we call it “the Big House” I just never knew it belonged to my aunt.  What about you?

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