Ammani youth adopt a Western approach to dating, but older generations hold on to tradition

Story by Erin Kelly // Photos by Catherine Strong and Anthony Savvides                                

AMMAN, Jordan – On the upper level of the Turtle Green Tea Bar on Rainbow Street, a couple dressed conservatively in t-shirts and cargo pants sits closely together on a red couch, heads bowed as if sharing a secret. Though the Internet café is full of activity, the pair remains secluded in their quiet corner.

This couple, photographed at the University of Jordan, keeps a safe distance apart from one another. The consequences for women found in relationships can be "dangerous," according to sociology professor Ibrahim Othman. (Photo by Catherine Strong)

The woman, 20, does not wear a hijab, but lets her shoulder-length brown hair frame her face neatly. Her companion, a male, keeps his right arm softly brushing her left.

This almost imperceptible bit of contact is the most intimate gesture this couple can afford to display in public. And they don’t get many chances to be alone.

Hasan and Lamis, who refused to give their last names because they want their relationship to remain a secret, are both from Amman and have been dating for more than a year and a half. While some may consider this to be a lengthy courtship, Lamis has yet to tell her father about Hasan.

“He’s what they call ‘old school,’” Lamis said about why she can’t disclose the details of her relationship. “Here in Amman, it is a problem for men to know that females in their family are in a relationship.”

In order to spend time together without unveiling their secret, Lamis and Hasan work together on school projects at The German Jordanian University, where they are both studying architecture. They also meet at cafes and go out together in groups.

Hasan and Lamis’ story is not uncommon here in Amman, where female-male contact is often looked down upon, and men and women are not expected to go through any sort of dating process before an official engagement. While a Western approach to dating is spreading throughout the youth in Amman, parents and older generations have yet to adapt or accept this.

Hand-holding, once a taboo in Amman, is becoming more visible in public places like Rainbow Street with the rise of open-minded youth. (Photo by Anthony Savvides)

Mai Yonis, 23, also a student at the University of Jordan in Amman, is just one of many students there hiding a relationship from her family. Though Yonis and her boyfriend of four months are both Muslim, her father is too “traditional” to accept her relationship, and it is near impossible for the couple to spend time together. Instead, phone calls and Facebook help sustain their bond. Yonis said she hopes to marry her boyfriend one day, but doesn’t know if her parents will approve.

Relationships remain hidden because of the possible repercussions for women found involved with a man before marriage, especially for those in lower and middle social classes, said Ibrahim Othman, professor of sociology at the University of Jordan in Amman. The reason for this is that many individuals in Jordan have a sense of collective honor rather than individual honor, and a woman’s loss of virginity can shame a family. When a woman is dating, she may be perceived to be sabotaging her virginity.

“If she is a university student, she may be forbidden to go to the university, or if she is a working girl, she may be forbidden to go to work,” Othman said. “In some very few cases, she may be hurt. Usually it’s the brother [who hurts her].”

Jihad Abu-zaid, 22, holds on to traditional views of dating. (Photo by Catherine Stong)

There have been efforts to soften this stance. Two years ago, King Abdullah II asked individuals and police members to stop taking action against couples seen together. Yet many individuals cannot shy away from tradition, and interfere when they notice couples interlocking fingers or showing signs of intimacy, Othman said.

Mariam Obeid, 19, a student at the University of Jordan who is originally from Lebanon, has experienced this backlash first-hand.

“Once, on campus, a guy was sitting with a group of girls,” Obeid said. “A janitor saw a girl grabbing the guy’s arm, and he yelled at him, [saying] that he doesn’t fear God, and said, ‘what you are doing is wrong’.”

Signs of affection may be unacceptable in public, but Jihad Abu-zaid, 22, a student at the University of Jordan, said that sexual relations in Amman do occur.

“My belief is, I will not touch her before I marry her,” Abu-zaid said. “But with other people, everything happens—kisses and everything. You can’t say every Jordanian is the same. There is everything here, but I follow the habits and traditions [of the culture] because I believe it is the right thing—not because I am afraid [of religion].”

Though the taboo still exists, mostly with older generations, people in Amman are becoming more open-minded when it comes to dating, Othman said.  At the University of Jordan, relationships are displayed in public and everyone knows what couples are together.

Parents know dating among youth is occurring, too, but refuse to acknowledge that it may be happening with their own sons or daughters, Othman said. However, with the influx of young people in Amman, the ideas surrounding dating and relationships will continue to progress and evolve to adapt to the increased openness shared by many young people and university students.

“It will change,” Othman said. “In 10 years, there will be no need for secret relationships.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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