Country Listing

Jordan Table of Contents


Family Relationships

The social milieu in which a Jordanian family lived significantly affected the position of the wife and her degree of autonomy. In rural agricultural areas and among the urban poor, women fulfilled important economic functions. Traditionally, some women of poor urban families worked outside the home, and rural women performed a wide variety of tasks in the household and in the fields. Such women occupied a position of relative importance and enjoyed a modicum of freedom in their comings and goings within the village or neighborhood. Although casual social contact between the sexes of the kind common in the West was infrequent, segregation of the sexes was less pronounced than in traditional towns. Among the traditional urban bourgeoisie, women fulfilled fewer and less important economic functions. Artisan and merchant families earned their living from the skills of the men. Women's responsibilities were more confined to the home. Among the new urban middle class, women occupied a variety of positions, some of them contradictory. Some women of this class were educated and employed, and enjoyed a fair measure of mobility within society; others, also educated and skilled, lived a more sheltered life, with minimal mobility. Both groups of women frequently were seen in the streets wearing Islamic dress (see Women and Work , this ch.).

The allocation of space within the home was often genderspecific . The houses of prosperous urban and rural families traditionally contained distinct men's and women's areas: the reception room where the men of the family entertained male guests and the women's quarters from which adult males other than relatives and servants were excluded. Less wealthy urban or rural families were unable to conform as easily to the standards of segregation. They could not afford the extra room for male gatherings. In poorer rural areas, men and women often socialized together in the house.

Status within the household varied considerably depending on sex, age, and type of household. In principle, men had greater autonomy than women. Their movements in public were freer, and their personal decisions were more their own. Within the household, however, younger males were subject to the authority of senior males, their grandfathers, fathers, and uncles. Decisions about education, marriage, and work remained family affairs. Older women exerted substantial authority and control over children and adolescents, the most powerless sector within a household.

Household structure, whether nuclear or extended, also determined the extent to which women wielded power in a household. In a household with multiple married women, senior women held more power and could exert more control over younger wives. Younger women often preferred to live in a nuclear household where they had more autonomy in running the household and in child rearing. They were then more subject, however, to the direct control of the husband and had to manage the household alone without the help of other women.

Children were given much affection and attention. Although not spared spanking and occasional harsh scolding, children were indulged and given much physical affection by household members and neighbors alike. Their behavior was tolerated with amusement until close to the ages of four and five. Children then were expected to assume some responsibilities in the household. Little girls at this age began to help their mothers with household chores and to care for younger children.

Segregation by gender was tied closely to the concept of honor (ird). In most Arab communities, honor inhered in the descent group--the family and, to a varying extent, the lineage or clan. Honor could be lost through the failure of sisters, wives, and daughters to behave properly (modestly) and through the failure of men to exert self-restraint over their emotions toward women. For women, the constraints of modesty were not confined to sexual matters. Also, women could be held accountable for a loss of honor though they might not have had any obvious responsibility in the matter. Loud speech, a woman's bearing or dress, or her appearing in public places could lead to a loss of honor. For men, overt expressions of emotions (such as romantic love) that revealed vulnerability to women could cause a man's strength to be questioned, leading to a loss of honor. Men were expected to be above such matters of the heart. A wife's failure to behave properly reflected on the honor of her husband and his kin, but even more on her father and brothers and others of the group from which she came. A man's failure to conform to the norms of selfcontrol and invulnerability to women shamed his immediate and extended kin group.

Above all, honor was a matter of reputation. Perceptions were as important as actions or events. An offense against honor could be very lightly punished if it appeared that only the person's family knew of it. Harsher steps were required if persons outside the family knew of the offense or believed it to have occurred.

The penalties for violation of the honor code differed for men and women. Custom granted the males of a family the right to kill female kin known to have engaged in illicit sexual relations. A more common practice, however, was for the families involved to arrange a hasty marriage. Men who lost honor through their actions were ostracized and lost face and standing in the community.

On the one hand, the segregation of women worked to minimize the chances that a family's honor would be lost or diminished. On the other hand, the education of women and their participation in a modern work force tended to erode the traditional concept of honor by promoting the mingling of the sexes in public life.

Data as of December 1989

Country Listing

Jordan Table of Contents