My name is Katie Polgase and as part of my undergraduate course at Cambridge I did a dissertation called the ‘New Life Stage’.
I discussed the role and value of Jordanian women in their society and in particular, how they, self-analysed their position. It was really about how they viewed themselves as women and as young people in society and as educated, unmarried people. It is a state of their life in which things are all up in the air, there is not really anything set yet; they are not married, they don’t have kids, they don’t have a permanent job, they haven’t decided what their career is going to be. They haven’t brought a house and so they are really deciding what they want to do with their lives and many were the same age as me and that was quite important.
"I wouldn’t say it came out with really any kind of concrete statements about what Jordanian women are, I think in many ways it complicated the issue."
My study really explored what I termed the ‘new life stage’, and it has been coined by other authors but it has a different definition. For me, it meant a period of negotiation, a period in which they were struggling to detach from family and traditional ideals. Jordanian society is still quite embedded in conservative values. Also, I looked at their education and their position as reasonably wealthy, middle class educated women; they had access to the internet, social media and western ideas. They knew of different familial structures, of different relationship statuses, for example; they knew that in the West we accept gay marriage and they don’t. They know that we move out of home for University and they don’t. They were aware of different options. This study explored how they combined these ideals, how they did and didn’t. These women were really trying to negotiate who they were going to be, potentially they would shift from their family to their husband’s home, something you really just don’t get here.
So, it was really an interesting study, I wouldn’t say it came out with really any kind of concrete statements about what Jordanian women are, I think in many ways it complicated the issue. I think that is important. Women are often explained in quite concrete terms aka. British women are like this, Jordanian women are like this, but it’s never that black and white. They were very similar to me they were interested in politics, in different ways of understanding gender and society and they were also quite interested in change.
Do you think that they judged the choices that other women made or do you think that it was so complicated because they did not and therefore had lots of options?
I think that they were quite non-judgemental, actually, which surprised me a bit. I thought that they, as university educated, working women who therefore stood out, that they would be quite judgmental of women who got married and who decided not to work. However, they weren’t judgmental, they felt that everyone could make different life choices. They were actually quite open, which is actually quite a modern attitude - to not judge. In the past people were more ‘my way is right’ but these women weren’t scared by unfamiliarity, they knew that different women do different things. Especially, because of their backgrounds it’s very hard to study and move out of the family home and so because of that, I think, they were not really judgemental.
Would you count them as agents of social change, even if not intentionally?
I think they want to be and a lot of scholars have said that they are. I didn’t see them as having as much agency as they actually wanted and that is where the negotiation comes in. Having an education gives you agency, it opens your mind, your able to think about things in a different way, and you are able to change the people around you in a way you couldn’t before. That was probably the biggest agency they had, their education. The real question is whether they acted upon it, you can suddenly look at the fact that your father says you can’t go out after 5pm and say I don’t agree with that and before your education you might not have questioned it. However, I found that although they disagreed with it, they didn’t do anything about it. That was quite interesting.
"This whole agency they have, underneath it all they are quite realistic and perhaps Western women often view feminism very idealistically"
That is why I say it was a negotiation, they were actually quite aware that they had certain limitations put on them but they didn’t necessarily follow it through in a way that I, as a Western women, assumed they would. Actually, for me that made me realise that there are reasons that these people are not following through, because life is more complicated than that. This whole agency they have, underneath it all they are quite realistic and perhaps Western women often view feminism very idealistically: we say we want to do this, we want to do that, let’s get equal rights and let’s get equal pay. I am not saying we shouldn’t aim for that but these people are dealing with change on a day to day basis, change really is happening every single day and they have to be realistic. If your dad is saying you can’t go out after 5 pm, sure you might disagree and some did and went out at night. However, family, and this is probably one of the most important things about Jordon, is your social security network. It is more than the police, there is still quite a lot of who knows who: ‘I know the police man’, ‘I am not going to be arrested tonight’. So, if you go against your family, suddenly you have lost that protection. To the outside society in Jorden, if your family have kicked you out or you have kicked them out, whatever the reason was, even if it was awful, even if they beat you. You are looked on badly, it’s not like anyone rushes to your aid, other than a few charities in that space.
Thinking about your own privilege and being brought into a situation where you have to challenge how you perceive your own gender. Could you talk a bit about that?
Yeh, I think that is one of the nicest parts of the study is that it made me sit back and shut up. It made me realise that I don’t know everything and that all different women experience slightly different problems depending on their background, depending on how much money they have, depending on their religion or on where in the world they are born. Its not quite the same and sexism comes in many different forms but also female empowerment comes in all shapes and forms. One of the nicest parts of the study was realising that my definition of female empowerment wasn’t necessarily theirs but that didn’t make theirs any better or worse than mine, it was just different.
So you did your discipline, Asian and middle eastern studies, provide you with a particular insight into gender? How did that discipline help you talk about gender?
It made me realise there is not one type of feminism. I think that Western feminism in general has issues and I am not afraid to say that. I have a lot of friends who work in the feminist movement and work in feminist organisations and I fully support their endeavor but western feminism as a campaign has harmed the middle east in many ways. It definitely has. It was used by Christian women as part of a crusader approach during the colonial period. It was basically making these women, who they saw as inferior, in the Arab world, come and realise that they needed to be empowered through Christianity first and foremost, and through Victorian values. As a result, feminism and the west became intimately linked and a large part of middle eastern culture, particularly those that justify sexist attitudes towards women say exactly that - if anyone gets any ideas about gender equality and improving the rights of women, they say you have been duped by western values and western ideologies. It becomes highly politicised and It shouldn’t be. I think in many ways it is history that has made that the problem, it is colonialism and the west that has made women this carriage for changing society. That is why I come back to saying that women are symbols, always in black and white, because western societies often used women as a status symbol to say, “this is how your society is”, “this is what we have got to change”, and if we change the women we change everything. There is a lot that Arab women were doing themselves to bring about change, there are plenty of Arab women. They just didn’t pay any attention to and arguably they hindered that movement that had already started in the Middle East.
I think that history shows that thinking there is one type of Feminism, that there is one way to be, is highly problematic and it often hinders the movement overall.