All photographs by Mya Guarnieri
ON THE LAST DAY of the semester at Al-Quds University in the West Bank, I entered the classroom to find the usual graffiti on the whiteboard, save for an odd symbol. It was a triangle filled with curlicues, topped by two circles with dots in the middle. I talked to my students — all freshmen in college, mostly women, most in hijab — as I erased the board but found that the symbol wasn’t going anywhere. So I kept rubbing. A few of my students began to giggle. The harder I rubbed, the harder they laughed.
I stepped away from the board and looked at the triangle and circles. It snapped into focus: a patch of pubic hair topped by a pair of breasts.
“Oh,” I said, glad my students couldn’t see my face. I was embarrassed that I’d rubbed a picture of genitalia in front of “my kids,” as I call them.
But I was more embarrassed that I’d lacked the imagination to see what was right in front of my eyes, that I hadn’t expected to find a universal sign of sexuality here (what is more timeless than a woman’s organs?), that I had seen my students merely as “Muslims” and that I somehow, in my mind, had precluded their normal, human desires and the conflicts that come with them.
Jordanian women protest at a demonstration led by the Islamic Action Front in Amman, demanding reform.
Fida J. Adely similarly calls the reader to task in Gendered Paradoxes: Educating Jordanian Woman in Nation, Faith, and Progress. I’m not usually one to quibble about titles but, in this case, the dry title does a major disservice to this energetic, highly readable exploration of identity politics in a young nation. What’s more, the title also implies that Adely will uphold Orientalist tropes by invoking the prevailing Western view of Jordanian women: that their low workforce participation and high fertility rates — despite increasing education — suggests a “paradox.”
Rather, Adely allows high school–aged girls to speak for themselves. She uses their stories to examine the larger issues of why Jordanian women often pursue degrees but not careers; how the young women negotiate their relationship with Islam; and how the educational system helps solidify a national identity while simultaneously serving as a place to discuss Islam.
The latter is, perhaps, the true paradox of the book. While the monarchy co-opts moderate Islam for purposes of state-building, more conservative forms of the religion present a challenge to the king’s authority and the primacy of the nation in citizen’s lives. This is particularly relevant in Jordan today, where the Islamic Action Front (the Jordanian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) is leading weekly protests in the capital city of Amman that, some observers say, could boil over and topple the monarchy.
Jordan, like Egypt, is troubled by high unemployment: while official numbers put it at 13 percent, unofficial estimates say the jobless rate is a w...read more