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Visiting the Middle East as a Western Woman

10/11/2015 10:25 GMT | Updated 09/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Having never traveled to the Middle East before, I was a little unsure about what to expect from a holiday to Jordan. My research findings ranged from women on their own being ignored (a woman in a cafe not being served for two hours) to people being incredibly friendly and welcoming. As I was also looking forward to some November sun, especially seeing as there wasn't much August sun in the UK, I wasn't sure if it was possible to still get a lovely tan if I had to wear a scarf over my head. In actual fact, as Jordan is a country that has a large Christian community, it might be seen as rude to simply adopt what many see as a religious form of attire in order to 'blend in.' Not only that, but they even have their own micro-brewery. So much for my pre-conceived notions. So I packed some long-sleeved shirts and a couple of maxi skirts, and boarded the plane.

The actual experience was not exactly what I expected, but also not entirely pleasant. While clearly the majority of women do indeed wear something to cover their heads, this varied. In Amman we saw everything from women in niqabs (usually in the minority) to women in Western clothes and a headscarf. While there were definitely a greater majority of women wearing long dresses to cover their bodies, it seemed that a broad spectrum was considered acceptable. Nothing much different to what you would see in London. Clearly there are different women making different choices, and adopting whichever part of the dress they feel suits them. But I can only assume this. I didn't speak to any women. In the cafes, shops, on the street, in restaurants, it was pretty much all men. From teaching a Saudi women's class back when I taught TEFL, I know that women have their own sphere, where they are able to uncover themselves, wear and say whatever they like amongst their friends, but it was unsettling to feel so alien as a woman when in public.

The people were hugely welcoming. They kept asking us where we were from, and telling us that we were welcome. In recent years, since the Arab Spring, Jordan doesn't exactly have stable neighbours (Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria). Despite being one of the most economically and politically stable countries in that area of the world, numbers of tourists have dropped. Which is a shame, as it's absolutely stunning. Everything from tropical seas to imposing mountain ranges, including the awe-inspiring Petra. Considering recent events in Egypt, perhaps that isn't surprising, but it's a shame that the actions of few end up painted over our impressions of so many. Since my return, I have been asked several times if I saw anything 'bad' out there, as if a predominantly Islamic country is an unpleasant place to go by default. I was, however, treated differently. No-one spoke to me when my boyfriend was there, he was always addressed first. If I went into a shop on my own, they spoke without making any eye contact with me. If I gave them money, the change was given back to my boyfriend. If I asked a question, they gave him the answer. While I am sure that a lot of this behaviour came out of respect, it made me start to feel like some sort of object or appendage. Indeed, in a shop, when I walked off on my own, a man shooed my boyfriend over to me. "You can't just let your wife run off," he said. "You must look after it." While I'm sure this was a language error in his use of pronouns, it felt quite apt for the sentiment he was expressing.

I wondered how the girls felt when they got to a certain age. We saw a brother and sister in their swimming costumes, chasing into the sea and shrieking with laughter. For the little boy, it was easy to find older counterparts; teenage boys and young men hanging around on the beach in T-shirts. For the girls, there was no equivalent. A gap, until you saw married women with their children. One exuberant lady sloshed into the sea, fully dressed, her black skirts hanging down around her legs, headscarf on, a rubber ring around her waist. At least she was still having fun, but I can't help feeling it must be restrictive. I can't deny I was delighted to take off the fake wedding ring I had on all week, and reclaim my status as a full person. The history of veiling and covering women is complex, and began as a mark of status and respect, before it was claimed as a mark of religion (the first veiling law was almost two millennia before Islam), so I don't want to make assumptions about those who cover themselves, merely reflect on my reactions to it.

What interested me was the way it forced me to reconsider the labels that we attach to clothing in general. While I was frustrated at my lack of individuality, it reminded me of how much women are judged by their clothing. From the woman who was chastised openly on a train to the continuation of 'slut shaming' and women denied access to ordinary spaces because of their dress., what a woman wears is still too often taken as an indicator of her sexual availability, rather than a sense of style. It would be tempting to cover it all up and insist that people only listened to my voice, and did not pre-judge it by what I chose to put on my body. I would much rather, though, that women and men, irrespective of religious or cultural backgrounds, were treated as people, before we allowed any other labels to get in the way.

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