Jordan Table of Contents

In the late 1980s, social life and identity in Jordan centered around the family. The household was composed of people related to one another by kinship, either through descent or marriage, and family ties extended into the structure of clans and tribes. Individual loyalty and the sense of identity arising from family membership coexisted with new sources of identity and affiliation. The development of a national identity and a professional identity did not necessarily conflict with existing family affiliations. Although rapid social mobility strained kin group membership, kinship units were sometimes able to adapt to social change.

Gender and age were important determinants of social status. Although the systematic separation of women from men was not generally practiced, all groups secluded women to some extent. The character of gender-based separation varied widely among different sectors of society; it was strictest among the traditional urban middle class and most flexible among the beduins, where the exigencies of nomadic life precluded segregation. However, the worlds of men and women intersected in the home. Age greatly influenced an individual man or woman's standing in society; generally, attaining an advanced age resulted in enhanced respect and social stature.

The formation of an educated middle class that included increasing numbers of educated and working women led in the late 1980s to some strains in the traditional pattern. Men and women now interacted in public--at school and in the universities, in the workplace, on public transportation, in voluntary associations, and at social events.

Family and Household

The extended family continued to be a viable form of household in the late 1980s. More families had begun to live in nuclear households, but Jordanians continued to rely on extended kin relations for a variety of purposes, which can be described as exchanges. Exchanges might include financial support; job information; social connections; access to strategic resources; marital partners; arrangements, protection, and support in the event of conflict; child care and domestic services; and emotional sustenance. In turn, an individual's social identity and loyalty continued to be oriented largely to the family.

Formally, kinship was reckoned patrilineally, and the household usually was based on blood ties between men. There was no one form of family; and household structure changed because of births, deaths, marriages, and migration. A household could consist of a married couple, their unmarried children, and possibly other relatives such as parents, or a widowed parent or an unmarried sister. Alternatively, a household could consist of parents and their married sons, their wives, and their children. At the death of the father, each married son ideally established his own household to begin the cycle again. Although the kinship system was considered patrilineal, maternal kin also were significant.

Because the family was central to social life, all children were expected to marry at the appropriate age, and eligible divorced or widowed persons were expected to remarry. Marriage conferred adult status on both men and women. The birth of children further enhanced this status, especially for women, who then felt more secure in their marital households. Polygyny was practiced in only a minority of cases and was socially frowned upon.

Traditionally, the individual subordinated his or her personal interests to those of the family. The importance of the group outweighed that of the individual. In the late 1980s, it was still uncommon for a man to live apart from a family group unless he were a migrant worker or a student. Grown children ordinarily lived with parents or relatives until marriage. Children were expected to defer to the wishes of their parents.

Marriage was a family affair rather than a personal choice. Because the sexes ordinarily did not mix much socially, young men and women had few acquaintances among the opposite sex, although among beduins a limited courtship was permitted. Parents traditionally arranged marriages for their children, finding a mate either through the family or their social contacts. In the late 1980s, this pattern had changed substantially.

Among village and tribal populations, the preferred marriage partner was the child of the father's brother. In most areas, a man had a customary right to forbid his father's brother's daughter from marrying an outsider if he wished to exercise his right to her hand. If the ideal cousin marriage was not possible, marriage within the patrilineal kin group was the next best choice. Such endogamous marriages had several advantages for the parties: the bridewealth payments demanded of the groom's kin tended to be smaller; the family resources were conserved; the dangers of an unsuitable match were minimized; and the bride was not a stranger to her husband's house.

A University of Jordan medical department study in the late 1980s pointed to a 50 percent rate of family intermarriage: 33 percent of marriages were between first-degree relatives, 7 percent between second-degree relatives, and 10 percent were within the extended family. Nonetheless, in the 1980s, endogamous marriages had declined in frequency; previous rates of intermarriage may have been as high as 95 percent. Increasing female education and employment allowed young people more opportunities to meet and marry outside family arrangements. Also, there was growing awareness that genetic problems could arise in the offspring of endogamous marriages.

In Islam, marriage is a civil contract rather than a sacrament. Representatives of the bride's interests negotiate a marriage agreement with the groom's representatives. The future husband and wife must give their consent. Young men often suggest to their parents whom they would like to marry; women usually do not do so but have the right to refuse a marriage partner of their parents' choice. The contract establishes the terms of the union, and, if they are broken, outlines appropriate recourse. Special provisions inserted into the contract become binding on both parties.

Islam gives to the husband far greater leeway than to the wife in terms of polygyny and in matters of divorce. For example, a man may legally take up to four wives at one time provided he can treat them equally; a woman can have only one husband at a time. A man may divorce his wife by repeating "I divorce thee" three times before witnesses and registering the divorce in court; a woman can instigate divorce only under very specific circumstances. Few women seek divorce because of the difficulty of taking a case to court, the stigma attached to a divorced woman, and the possibility of a woman's losing custody of her children. In theory and as a matter of public appearance, men exercise authority over women. That authority, however, is not as absolute as once thought. Women wield considerable power within the home and decision making often is a joint affair between husband and wife.

Family Relationships

The social milieu in which a Jordanian family lived significantly affected the position of the wife and her degree of autonomy. In rural agricultural areas and among the urban poor, women fulfilled important economic functions. Traditionally, some women of poor urban families worked outside the home, and rural women performed a wide variety of tasks in the household and in the fields. Such women occupied a position of relative importance and enjoyed a modicum of freedom in their comings and goings within the village or neighborhood. Although casual social contact between the sexes of the kind common in the West was infrequent, segregation of the sexes was less pronounced than in traditional towns. Among the traditional urban bourgeoisie, women fulfilled fewer and less important economic functions. Artisan and merchant families earned their living from the skills of the men. Women's responsibilities were more confined to the home. Among the new urban middle class, women occupied a variety of positions, some of them contradictory. Some women of this class were educated and employed, and enjoyed a fair measure of mobility within society; others, also educated and skilled, lived a more sheltered life, with minimal mobility. Both groups of women frequently were seen in the streets wearing Islamic dress.

The allocation of space within the home was often genderspecific . The houses of prosperous urban and rural families traditionally contained distinct men's and women's areas: the reception room where the men of the family entertained male guests and the women's quarters from which adult males other than relatives and servants were excluded. Less wealthy urban or rural families were unable to conform as easily to the standards of segregation. They could not afford the extra room for male gatherings. In poorer rural areas, men and women often socialized together in the house.

Status within the household varied considerably depending on sex, age, and type of household. In principle, men had greater autonomy than women. Their movements in public were freer, and their personal decisions were more their own. Within the household, however, younger males were subject to the authority of senior males, their grandfathers, fathers, and uncles. Decisions about education, marriage, and work remained family affairs. Older women exerted substantial authority and control over children and adolescents, the most powerless sector within a household.

Household structure, whether nuclear or extended, also determined the extent to which women wielded power in a household. In a household with multiple married women, senior women held more power and could exert more control over younger wives. Younger women often preferred to live in a nuclear household where they had more autonomy in running the household and in child rearing. They were then more subject, however, to the direct control of the husband and had to manage the household alone without the help of other women.

Children were given much affection and attention. Although not spared spanking and occasional harsh scolding, children were indulged and given much physical affection by household members and neighbors alike. Their behavior was tolerated with amusement until close to the ages of four and five. Children then were expected to assume some responsibilities in the household. Little girls at this age began to help their mothers with household chores and to care for younger children.

Segregation by gender was tied closely to the concept of honor (ird). In most Arab communities, honor inhered in the descent group--the family and, to a varying extent, the lineage or clan. Honor could be lost through the failure of sisters, wives, and daughters to behave properly (modestly) and through the failure of men to exert self-restraint over their emotions toward women. For women, the constraints of modesty were not confined to sexual matters. Also, women could be held accountable for a loss of honor though they might not have had any obvious responsibility in the matter. Loud speech, a woman's bearing or dress, or her appearing in public places could lead to a loss of honor. For men, overt expressions of emotions (such as romantic love) that revealed vulnerability to women could cause a man's strength to be questioned, leading to a loss of honor. Men were expected to be above such matters of the heart. A wife's failure to behave properly reflected on the honor of her husband and his kin, but even more on her father and brothers and others of the group from which she came. A man's failure to conform to the norms of selfcontrol and invulnerability to women shamed his immediate and extended kin group.

Above all, honor was a matter of reputation. Perceptions were as important as actions or events. An offense against honor could be very lightly punished if it appeared that only the person's family knew of it. Harsher steps were required if persons outside the family knew of the offense or believed it to have occurred.

The penalties for violation of the honor code differed for men and women. Custom granted the males of a family the right to kill female kin known to have engaged in illicit sexual relations. A more common practice, however, was for the families involved to arrange a hasty marriage. Men who lost honor through their actions were ostracized and lost face and standing in the community.

On the one hand, the segregation of women worked to minimize the chances that a family's honor would be lost or diminished. On the other hand, the education of women and their participation in a modern work force tended to erode the traditional concept of honor by promoting the mingling of the sexes in public life.

Changing Social Relations and Values

Relations between men and women, along with all other aspects of Jordanian society, had begun to change as people adopted values, attitudes, and customs much different from those traditional in the country. As new ideas reached all sectors of society, new perceptions and practices began to appear.

Increased social and physical mobility have undermined the familial ties and the values that subordinated the individual to the kin group. A growing individualism has appeared, especially among the educated young. Many young people prefer to set up their own household at marriage rather than live with their parents. Labor migration has had a considerable impact on family structure and relations. In some cases, where men migrate without their families, their wives and children see the husband only once or twice a year when he visits. If the wife and children live alone, this arrangement leads to increased responsibility and autonomy for women. Also, the children in such families grow up without knowing their fathers well. When the wife and children live with the migrant's extended family, they are usually under the authority of her husband's family.

Some of the most marked social changes have affected women's roles. In urban areas, young women have begun to demand greater freedom and equality than in the past, although traditional practices still broadly govern their lives. Since the 1960s, women have become more active outside the home. In the 1980s, girls' school enrollment was nearly parallel to that of boys, and female graduates entered the work force in increasing numbers. Girls who attended school were not as closely chaperoned as they formerly were, although they rarely went out with friends in the evening. Educated women also tended to marry later, often after working for several years. The average age of marriage for women had risen from the mid-teens to the early twenties; the average age for males was between twenty-six and twenty-eight years. The narrowing of the gap in age between marriage partners signified a changing conception of the conjugal unit and its relation to the larger family group. Companionship and notions of romantic love were playing a greater role in marital arrangements than heretofore. Marriages were still a family affair, but the relationship between man and wife was assuming increasing significance. This change reflected a dilution in the strength of families as social units with corporate interests that subordinated those of the individual.

By the late 1980s, some observers had noted that couples tended to want fewer children. This trend appeared to parallel the changes in women's position in society and shifts in the political economy, which had implications for family structure, relations, and values. Women's education and employment patterns meant that child rearing was no longer the only role open to women. The need for dual-income households pointed to a decrease in the amount of time women could devote to child rearing. In the transition from an agricultural and pastoral society to one based on services, where literacy was a must, children required longer periods of education and thus were dependent for extended periods upon their families. Large families were no longer as economically feasible or desirable as in the past.

The spread of the nuclear household encouraged the detachment of the individual from the demands of the extended family. At the same time, social security lessened the dependence of the aged on their children and other relatives. The functions of the extended family, however, were not necessarily diminished; given economic upheavals and a weak infrastructure for state social services, Jordanians continued to rely upon the extended family, even if many of its members resided in nuclear units.

Generational conflicts, which observers believed to be increasing, strained family relations when young people attempted to adopt standards and behavior different from those of their parents. Modern, secular education, with its greater emphasis on utility and efficiency, tended to undermine respect for the wisdom of age and the rightness of tradition. Male wage earners also were less dependent on older males for access to resources such as land and bridewealth.

Women and Work

Despite a seemingly conservative milieu, the number of women working outside the home increased in the 1980s. Women formed a little over 12 percent of the labor force in 1985. Many poor and lower-class women worked out of economic necessity, but a substantial number of working women came from financially secure families. According to the Ministry of Planning, the proportion of women working in professional and technical jobs was high. In 1985 women constituted 35.4 percent of technical workers and 36.1 percent of clerical staff. Women were least represented in agriculture and production. Women's increased access to education had led them to greater aspirations to work outside the home. Moreover, inflation had made the dual-income family a necessity in many cases.

Jordanian women served as a reserve labor force and were encouraged to work during the years of labor shortages when economic expansion and development plans were high on the government's priority list. In a 1988 study of women and work in Jordan, journalist Nadia Hijab argued that cultural attitudes were not the major constraint on women's employment; rather, need and opportunity were more significant factors.

Most employed women were single. Unmarried women, in particular, were initially considered a source of untapped labor. Yet cultural constraints clearly militated against women working in agriculture, industry, and construction--areas of low prestige, but also the sections with the most critical labor shortages. Development programs for women focused on technical training. Hijab mentions that a typical project was "to train women on the maintenance and repair of household appliances."

To make work more attractive to women with children, the government discussed amending the labor laws to improve conditions. Such proposed amendments included granting more maternity leave and providing day-care facilities at the workplace. In addition, the media encouraged a more liberal attitude to women's working. Women's employment gained further legitimacy through national ceremonies sponsored by the government and the royal family honoring women's work.

The critical years of labor shortages were 1973 to 1981. By the mid-1980s, the situation had changed as unemployment surged. With high unemployment, women were asked to return to their homes. Publicly and privately, Jordanians hotly debate whether women should work. Letters to the editors of daily newspapers argued for and against women's working. Some government leaders had decided that women should return to their homes. Discussion about amending labor laws was shelved, and Hijab observed that by 1985 there was "almost an official policy" to encourage married women to stay at home. Then Prime Minister Zaid ar Rifai bluntly suggested in 1985 that working women who paid half or more of their salary to foreign maids who sent the currency abroad should stop working.

Differences in attitude towards women's employment frequently were based on the conditions of work. In a study of attitudes toward women and work, Jordanian sociologist Mohammad Barhoum found that resistance was least to women working in traditionally female occupations such as teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. He believed the change in attitude resulted from increased educational opportunities for girls and their parents' realization that education was as important for girls as for boys, especially in the event of widowhood or divorce. The erosion of male wages, no longer adequate to support a family, had also been a prominent factor in legitimizing female employment.

The impact of women's employment on relations within the family remained difficult to assess in 1989. Employment and contribution to family income accorded women a greater voice in family matters. The traditional division of labor between men and women within the family often remained relatively untouched when women worked. Women's work at home was often taken up by other women rather than shared between men and women. Women earning lower incomes relied on their extended network of female relatives to help with child care and housework, while upper and middle income women hired maids (usually foreigners from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, or Egypt) to tend to their homes and children.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress