CCAS Assistant Professor Fida Adely discusses her forthcoming book Gendered Paradoxes, and challenges some widespread assumptions about the purpose of education.
Interview by Andy Morimoto and Jessica Michek
In 2005, the World Bank released a Gender Assessment of Jordan that framed women’s development in Jordan as a “gender paradox.” According to the report, women experienced high fertility and low participation in the workforce despite equal access to education. This seeming paradox prompted Dr. Fida Adely, assistant professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS), to examine the educational experiences of women in Jordan and consider why they are making the choices that they are. In her forthcoming book, Gendered Paradoxes (University of Chicago, 2012), Dr. Adely explores the competing definitions of progress, identity, and education for young women she interviewed in the al‐Khatwa High School for Girls in Bawadi al-Naseem, Jordan. Dr. Adely also has a personal interest in the country, as her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Jordan and she continues to have extended family there. CCAS recently interviewed Dr. Adely to learn more about her book and her thoughts on women in the Middle East.
In your book, you are critical of the Arab Human Development Report and the World Bank’s gender assessment of Jordan. Can you describe some of the points that you found problematic within these documents?
What bothered me most about the Arab Human Development Report is that it painted a picture of Arab families as oppressive obstacles to women. Family members were viewed as villains, and women were displayed as passive victims. I felt that the report did an injustice to the majority of families that I knew who struggled against great odds to provide opportunities for their daughters.
For its part, the World Bank report overemphasized the connection between education and economic returns. This report gives the impression that despite being highly educated, women are not using their skills to enrich the economy. The question I ask in my book, however, is whether or not this equation of “education plus work equals empowerment” is a true measure of development and progress.
What other functions do schools have if they do not facilitate student entry into the labor market?
I think this is a global question we are all asking now. Just look at the recent controversy at the University of Virginia where part of the debate was whether or not the university should teach subjects (such as languages, classics, or anthropology) that do not have immediate economic impact.
Education is about more than just providing economic opportunities for people. It provides the primary space for interaction with peers. It socializes young people and builds citizens. In the Jordanian context, schooling represents improving status, regardless of the economic opportunities it actually brings. Education is an idea for people—a hope. It brings respect and is central to a young woman’s sense of identity.
Are young women in Jordan happy with having an education that does not translate into employment?
Most young women I have spoken with at least articulate a desire to engage in paid employment especially if they are highly educated. Indeed, most young men believe they need to marry someone who works because the economic situation demands this. However, young women typically wish to balance work with bringing up children of their own, and they are still constrained by issues of mobility, the availability of decent child-care, etc.
In your book, you describe different and sometimes competing definitions of what it means to be a woman in Jordan, from the local to the national to the international level. Can you discuss some of these definitions?
The women of the royal family in particular have sought to provide women in Jordan with public role models that project confidence and assertiveness. Princess Basma, sister of the late King Hussein, has been at the forefront of attempts to change legislation regarding “crimes of honor” (albeit unsuccessfully) and a women’s right to divorce. Internationally, the royal family has also worked to foster Jordan’s reputation as a liberal and forward–looking country. Queen Rania, for example, has appeared on Oprah and even has her own YouTube channel.
However, this public image of Jordanian women is disconnected from the lives of most of the young women that I have come to know over my years of living and working in Jordan. At the level of the people, women such as teachers, mothers, sisters, and aunts exert a powerful influence over younger women in showing them what they can become. Through these figures, girls gain an intimate knowledge of what it means to work and have a family, what career opportunities may be desirable, and what barriers they may face as they enter adulthood.
Since developing your research on this topic in 2002, have you noticed any shifts in the dialogue surrounding gender and education in Jordan?
The economic situation in Jordan has worsened over the course of the last several years, and economic hardship has forced social change. Although people still view men as the “breadwinners,” the reality is that there are financial pressures on young families that push more women to obtain jobs.
You mention that many in the West have a skewed perception of women in the Middle East. They are believed to be passive and oppressed victims. Yet during the Arab Spring, we saw women who were powerful, vocal participants in demonstrations and labor strikes. Do you believe the events of the last year will change the stereotypes and misperceptions about women in the Middle East?
A year ago, in the spring of 2011, I felt like there was a moment when people’s paradigms about the Middle East were changing. For once, there were words in the Arabic language that were entering the American lexicon that were not about terrorism and violence. We heard words like ḥurrīya (freedom) and taḥrīr (liberation). But lately I feel like the popular discourse, as well as the analysis of many media pundits here in the U.S. has been falling back upon stock stereotypes about the Middle East, such as that the region is doomed by primordial hatreds and undemocratic tendencies.
As far as gender goes, I think images of women being attacked in Tahrir Square in Cairo are more widespread than are the images of successful female political and labor organizers or even of Tawakkul Karman, the female Nobel Prize winner in Yemen. This image of women as forever oppressed and weak is centuries old and will be extremely difficult to change. I am not terribly optimistic that the events of the Arab Spring will change much of that.
For a copy of Gendered Paradoxes, see the University of Chicago Press website. Dr. Adely will also be giving a talk about her book on September 20, 2012, at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Please RSVP with CCAS if you wish to attend.
Dr. Adely also recently published an article in the Middle East Research and Information Project titled “The Emergence of a New Labor Movement in Jordan.” To read, click here.