ReadCONTRA’s Sarah Hakani is currently based out of Amman while she works for the Jordan River Foundation, an organization that works with children who have been victims of abuse, refugee issues, women’s empowerment, and overall family and child safety. This is the third in a series of reflections about her stay.
For the last few weeks that I have been here, I have noticed something in my house that has led me to think a lot about… everything? That’s vague, but really. I think this impacts everything. It’s a simple thought that I’ve had before, as I’m sure over half of my friends have, but everything about it is much more magnified in a country like Jordan, a country in the Middle East.
I am not allowed to speak to my 9-year-old host sister in Arabic. Well, its not that strict or mandated, but my host mom told me to talk to her strictly in English because her English is really bad, and one of my host mom’s mentors got mad at my host sister for that. She absolutely hates speaking in English. I mean, even when she knows a word and has said it before, she will say it in Arabic, as if just to smite us. Every time we tell her to speak in English, she gets upset and refuses to speak at all.
Its hard for me to internally reconcile having to speak to her in English because its hard for me to be comfortable with the importance of English in our world, even though it is the most confusing, rule-less, sporadic language. It’s upsetting that as a result of our colonial, financial, and militaristic power (often obtained in horrifying ways), and general euro-centric-ness, everyone is expected to learn our language if they want to be anyone or get anywhere. Like really, think about it, how messed up is that. How many Americans (who do not learn a language from their parents) can speak another language? Well, its definitely not 80%, which is the percentage of Jordanians who can speak English.
I want so badly to yell at my host family and tell them to let my sister do what she wants and learn what she wants to become the strong, educated woman that she wants to be, but how dare I do that. Howdare I promise that she can be something without knowing English? In my head, I believe that she could, but in reality, it looks completely different. Here, English is success, and America is the dream. As an American, I can say otherwise, but that is as an American, someone who already benefits from that title and that privilege. Although I never want to contribute to this systematic issue of everyone trying to become more Western, I come from a privileged perspective as a woman who already knows English. It would be messed up of me to not try and teach her English regardless of how awful the whole reality of having to know English to succeed is.
I am currently contributing to this systematic issue, but what would happen if I didn’t? What would happen if my host sister just really never learned English? She may get by. She could find a great job, excel at what she chose to do and only be able to communicate in Arabic. But, she could also be extremely limited in options and possibilities. Worse, she may never be able to accomplish her dreams because in the future, they may all require English. Although this is a frustrating system, people blindly follow it because it… works.
Being here has been really challenging because of the privilege I carry. And I do not mean that in a “white guilt” or “American guilt” type way. It is unbelievably humbling to see people follow a system without even thinking twice because they just have other, bigger, more pressing things to worry about. Someone told me that women do not go out after 10PM without their husbands or their brothers in order to be safe. Women also do not show their shoulders or knees in order to avoid extreme cat calling and in order to make men more comfortable (even though right now, I feel like I could be covered head to toe and still be honked at for simply having two X chromosomes).
My immediate reaction is—why are women being taught to cover themselves and stay home in order to make men feel better? Why can’t men just deal with their urges internally and exist in a world where a woman’s knees are showing? And while I have the comfort of saying that and acting on it in America, I have no right to impose that mentality in Jordan because this is what works. This exists because it works. It keeps women safe. It keeps men comfortable.
Can we blame people for following an oppressive, one-tracked system if that is what keeps them physically, mentally, or emotionally stable? Should we expect individuals who are beat down and silenced by these systems to risk their safety, peace, or stability in order to create change? How much privilege must an individual have in order to 1) recognize the unfair situation they are in or creating and 2) have the energy, time, and support to work to change their environments? How much privilege must you have in order to fight a system that works, even though it is unfair?
These protesting mindsets are a product of understanding oppressive systems, and having the time and energy to work against them. That is not something that can be expected as a bare minimum from people, particularly when their bigger concern is just making it home safe and alive every night. You cannot be upset about an issue if in your eyes, it isn’t an issue, but rather it is just an inconvenience. Its not difficult for women to just put on a scarf before they leave, because God-forbid any man realizes that they have boobs, rather than to reconstruct society in a way that is less objectifying and sexist.
Change occurs but it looks different in different places, and you cannot hold another group to your standards because the battles are different, the importance of issues is different, and the privilege needed to even see something is problematic is different.