As a European woman in Jordan, I enjoy many freedoms my Jordanian female colleagues and friends do not. With my pale skin, brown hair, and seemingly European demeanour, I get away with a lot of things that would be inappropriate for a Jordanian woman. My white privilege protects me from expectations that a lot of my Jordanian peers have to meet. I can pay for dinner, even if my husband is dining with me. I can take a bus alone, even at night, to go home from work. I can walk alone at night. I can carry heavy bags. I can take Arabic classes with a male teacher in the same room. Just because I am a European woman.
However, sometimes, I get a glimpse of the expectations that young Jordanian women have to meet. A while back, when my husband and I started out in Jordan, shortly after we moved here for his work, we attempted to open a bank account. As a freelancer, without an annual contract, I could not open a bank account under my name, even though I’ve had my own since I was 12 – when my father insisted on transferring my pocket money to teach me to become financially literate. A solution was found in that I would receive a “partner card” for my husband’s account, allowing me to withdraw and deposit at will. While I didn’t like the idea, I conceded, and cards were produced on the spot. My husband was allowed to choose his PIN number, and then he was then asked to choose mine. My heart sank. I had already given up my job with an unlimited contract back home, left everything I had behind to join my husband in a new country. And here I was – to top it all off – becoming more dependent than I had ever been on a man. When my husband – bless him – said that I would be choosing my PIN number, the bank employee was flabbergasted. Several minutes of high-pitched conversation ensued (“Why? It’s your account.” “Yeah, but it’s her card!”) and eventually, I was allowed to choose my PIN. To this day, whenever I pay something by card, I know he will receive a text from the bank. Even though I don’t have to hide anything, to this day I feel more at ease paying in cash. To this day, whenever I want to pay for something online, I need my husband beside me to tell me the TAN code that he gets on his phone.
In the safe space of my Arabic language class, where my teachers act as my culture-shock therapists, I sometimes talk about these things. The small things. Recently, one of my female teachers and I talked about these cultural subtleties that get me sometimes. She told me that she spends half her salary on commutes. Her transportation costs are much higher than those of her male colleagues. Why? Because she has to commute by taxi. Her family would not allow her to take a bus – for fear of physical and verbal harassment. While I appreciate their good intentions and will to protect her, it limits her movement and professional life. On a lower salary, she would not be able to work and gain work experience. I have taken coaster busses myself: As a woman, you are always sat next to a woman and men are made to move for you. I also know my teacher as a strong young woman, who would shout at anyone getting too close. She feels she is not trusted by her family – and pays the literal price for it. She is not the only one I know in this situation. I have a friend who I have visited a lot, but she has never been at my place. Simply because her family doesn’t want her to go out alone.
Another story. I went out for dinner with my local girlfriends. We were hanging out, and when we started eating it was already 10:00 pm. Until 11:20, we had the most wonderful time – gossiping, laughing – until the mood suddenly shifted. Chairs were moved, legs were shaking, telephones checked. This is when I realized that, soon, all of them would have to go home, to meet their midnight curfew. As it happened, one phone after the other rang to check up on my friends – all over 25, independent, and in salaried employment. My husband just texted me: “Honey, enjoy!”.
Sometimes, I am not sure what it is that makes so many Jordanians go ’aadi’ whenever I act in ways perceived to be “inappropriate”. Is it because they respect my socialization and upbringing (which I hope) or because, as a European woman, my “honour is already lost” (which I fear)? I am also afraid of what people might think of my husband when I pay for dinner, or when I answer the question about my dinner plans with “oh, my husband is cooking.” But, as a European woman, I choose not to worry about what other people think – a freedom and luxury my Jordanian friends don’t enjoy. Yet.