Summarised from: The New Life Stage: A Study of Middle Class Girls in Contemporary Amman by Katie Polglase. Published by the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge, 2016.
Women have often been depicted as symbols. From representatives of a family’s reputation to markers of society’s progress, women always represent something. But the reality I found in Jordan suggested that women’s lives could not be categorised so neatly. The women I interviewed where university-educated, unmarried and between the ages of 20-30. Modernity, tick. They were also still living in the family home, planned to get married within a few years and would definitely prioritise the domestic role. Tradition, tick?
I wanted to understand how these women valued themselves in Jordanian society. How they conceptualised work, family and selfhood. In all categories I was left with a similar confusion. Many spoke of self-improving work and an autonomous self. But the same women also explained to me the importance of family and what Suad Joseph* coined ‘the relational self’ whereby one’s sense of self is formed in partnership with others. At points these values contradicted each other. A woman called Layla** explained to me how her family refused to let her travel abroad because they deemed it unsafe for women. She did not challenge them but insisted she would let her own daughter travel. This perhaps best exemplifies the new life stage. It was an elongated transition between girlhood and womanhood wherein the individual used their increasing levels of education and autonomy to negotiate new positions in the family structure. In each stage of their negotiations I observed a desire to combine ideals rather than replace them. Layla’s attachment to her family meant she did not override their decision but she knew she would act differently in the future.
I soon identified a hegemonic discourse of domesticity wherein the home is framed as the foundational centre of female selfhood. Women accommodated their experiences of the public sphere, particularly employment, around ideals embedded in the domestic sphere. As a result I saw women choose jobs that were close to home and spend most of their free time with family not friends. I call this discourse ‘hegemonic’ because none of the women could rationalise their behaviour, and saw no contradiction to the views they espoused on gender equality.
Despite all this, I found the new life stage to be a source of hope. I found many of the women had a pragmatic attitude towards their working lives. Many of their negotiations were based upon a realistic need to protect their reputations and marriage prospects rather than an innate belief in the female attachment to the home. Perhaps the hegemony was beginning to break. This suggested the emergence of an engaged, autonomous individual: negotiating different pressures, rather than succumbing to them.
Overall I noticed a desire to build broader, multifaceted understandings of female selfhood wherein autonomous and relational notions of selfhood coexist. It presented change as a constructive process, wherein old structures of human organisation and thought were brought together under new structures. Not only was this a positive depiction of societal change, but a more realistic one.
* Joseph, Suad. 1999. Intimate Selving in Arab Families: Gender, Self, and Identity. New York: Syracuse University Press.
**Name has been changed.
Check out A study in gender's interview with Katie, for a more detailed insight into her work and what it taught her about feminism and femininity.