“Girls,” we asked, “do you think you have the same rights as boys?” They all nodded.
It was the end of a long week and the room was at least eighty degrees. Forty-five girls were slouched together in a semi-circle around the projector. We were in the middle of an afternoon session of Camp GLOW, a week of intense leadership training at a university campus for Jordanian high school girls. We’d just finished watching a TED talk focusing on the work of Sakena Yacoobi, the director of the Afgan Institute of Learning- an organization that created underground schools for girls in Afganistan when girls’ education was banned by the Taliban in the 1990’s.
My friend Alexa was facilitating the discussion and battling the 4pm lull.
“Girls, do you think you have the same opportunities as boys?” They all nodded again. I raised my eyebrows at the other counselors.
“Malak,” I said, pointing to one of the nodders, “What kinds of opportunities do boys and girls both have in Jordan?”
“We can all go to school,” she stated simply.
“And we can all play sports,” chimed in Hiba.
“What else can both boys and girls do in Jordan?” Alexa asked. We got a lot of examples: driving a car, going to college, deciding what to study, choosing a career.
“Alright,” Alexa said, stepping closer to the group, “I want you to stand up if you think you would be allowed to do some of the things I’m about to say, okay? And you can stay sitting if you don’t think you could do those things because you are a girl.” The girls nodded. They follow directions well.
“Most families in Jordan would send their sons to study in America if they got into a university there. Stand up if your parents would let you go to university in America.” Two girls stood.
“Stand if your parents would let you live away from home before you were married.”
“With a relative?” asked Ensam hopefully.
“No, by yourself.” One girl stood.
“Okay. You can play sports in school, right? But boys can play soccer anywhere they want, even in the street. Stand up if your parents would let you play soccer in the street.” No one stood.
“But wait,” said Ensam, “I don’t want to play soccer outside.”
“Why don’t you want to play outside, Ensam?” I asked.
“Because I would be embarrassed. Everyone would look at me. It’s better in the school where it is only girls.”
“But Ensam,” I tried to explain, “if all the girls played soccer in the street, just like the boys, no one would look at you.”
She shook her head. “But girls don’t want to play soccer in the street.”
People in the States say that women in the Middle East are oppressed. And before I lived in Jordan, I might have said the same thing. But for some reason now, I balk at that word. Maybe it’s because of what Ensam said. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived with these women and I’ve seen their strengths, their skills, their courage. Maybe it’s because when we ask girls here if they have the same rights as boys, they nod. And I think in a lot of ways they’re right- most girls in Jordan are not oppressed. There’s a reason girls don’t play soccer in the street and it’s not because their parents say no. It’s because they don’t want to.
Girls in Jordan don’t play soccer in the street because they don’t want to make a scene. They don’t want to cause a problem. Standing up and being a leader means being looked at. It means being different. I haven’t met very many Jordanian girls who are comfortable being different.
Gender roles are deeply cultural and, for most Jordanians, very closely tied with religion. It is not my job to tell anyone that their perspective is wrong and if I did, I’d be a hypocrite. I’m an unmarried 24 year old with a boy’s haircut and baggy clothes. What do I know about gender roles? Yet somehow 45 Jordanian families have agreed to put their daughters in my care for a week. The very least I can do is respect their perspective. Still, the annual UNICEF report from 2012 showed that the number of Jordanian women who believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife under certain circumstances is 90%. And despite being known as one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, Jordan has one of the highest rates of honor killings in the world.
These are the problems we are trying to begin solving with Camp GLOW.
“Okay,” Alexa said, “I want to ask you another question now. The girls that Sakena Yacoobi knew in Afganistan were not allowed to go to school, or to even have books. But she helped them go to school anyway, even though it was against the law. If she had been caught, she could have been killed. Why do you think she did it?”
Malak stood up. A crowd of young girls in hijab looked up.
“Because she knew she was right.”