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Why it’s kind of unfair to judge private-sector life in the Middle East

Why it’s kind of unfair to judge private-sector life in the Middle East

In short: it’s too complicated, and it’s too cultural.

There is a lot of harping and speculation in the U.S. about women’s rights in the Middle East. Unfortunately, we tend to categorize the private sector (female) Muslim life as an equality issue and not as a cultural divide.*

For me–an American-born 21-year-old college student with one half-brother; a gym-employee who goes to work in shorts and a t-shirt, has a boyfriend, enjoys hobbies such as jogging outside, exploring large cities, meeting new people and an occasional glass of wine–private sector life can be very difficult.

And everything I read in preparation for the life-style here went out the window as soon as I started living it.

In Jordan, women operate largely inside the home. But that’s not necessarily because they have to. Here, women can run errands, go to coffee with friends, shop around in the mall–it’s just better, from a cultural standpoint, if they’re not alone.

“Not alone” means being accompanied by a man or a woman. In Jordan, women travel mostly in groups, and aren’t required to be accompanied by a brother or husband.

Group travel, for women, is not a religious construction: it’s a cultural difference. Privacy is just not valued in Arab societies. In the house, everyone eats together, sits together; there’s no assumption that a closed door is closed for privacy. In four weeks of living here, I haven’t seen one person walking around Jordan with earphones in. It’s a very social culture with a huge emphasis on hospitality and the familial network.

Jordanian culture sometimes lends itself to America’s idea of subservience. But in Jordan, the negative connotation of “subservience” is absent: it’s respect. You give your chair up for your older brother the way children should for their grandparents.

Women are not supposed to look men in the eyes for extended periods of time. Likewise, men aren’t supposed to stare at women in the eyes. The reason? It’s impolite to stare.

The public space is male-dominated, but public space only means so much. Walking around alone, being a street vendor, taxi driver, etc. are all public-arena jobs, but they are surrounded by the women who utilize and aid them in the work-force. women have jobs in the public space, it’s just not as prevalent.

In the private space of the house, women relax. It’s nowhere near the dim abyss of lonely housecleaning and cooking some tend to think of as the private sector. This is the space for women to take off their hijab, gossip about their day, spend time with their relatives after a day of work.

The size of the family here keeps the internal space very busy. The women (as well as the men, when they’re present) are constantly shifting between sitting and drinking tea or coffee, playing with the children (who are raised by everyone in the family), talking with family members, watching the news or Turkish soap operas, and just enjoying themselves in the company of relatives.

For me, however, this lifestyle means giving up many of my hobbies (which are largely of western creation) to sit with the women, gorge myself on tea–snack, talk, play. But after four weeks of being surrounded by the company of my host-family, more than five minutes of alone-time is beginning to feel largely unnecessary and strange.

And I think I’m starting to get it.

*This is not to say that there’s never an issue with women’s rights. Please note that I am writing this from the urban center of a largely forward-moving levantine nation.

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