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Studying Stereotypes and Women’s Perspectives in Jordan

Studying Stereotypes and Women’s Perspectives in Jordan April 15, 2014
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“I think that a lot of people in the Western world tend to hold views that are skewed by the media, that women in the Arab world are forced to wear veils over their faces,” said Cornell College senior Kailey Colestock. “I wanted to see what women had to say for themselves and their opinions on particular styles [of dress].”

As a participant in ACM’s Jordan Program last fall, Colestock was intrigued by issues and stereotypes surrounding the hijab, which refers to a head covering worn by women as well as a broader Islamic concept of modesty.

Kailey Colestock at a marketKailey Colestock at a market in Amman, Jordan.

She explored the perspectives of Jordanian women on clothing and the hijab in her independent study project, and recently presented her research at the sixth annual Student Symposium on Off-Campus Study in Chicago.

While her independent project was clearly a key part of her semester abroad, Colestock said that all parts of the program went together for an experience in which she engaged with new perspectives, honed her critical thinking skills, and gained confidence in her ability to live and communicate in another culture and language.

Fall 2013 was the inaugural semester of the Jordan: Middle East & Arabic Language Studies program, which takes students to the country’s capital of Amman, a cosmopolitan city of 2.5 million people. Participants study Arabic language and choose two elective courses from the offerings of AMIDEAST, ACM’s partner organization, which for decades has offered education abroad programs for students from the U.S. in the Middle East and North Africa.

Colestock arrived in Amman having taken Arabic language courses at Cornell, and her enthusiasm for continuing Arabic study was a major reason she chose the program. Students take both Modern Standard Arabic, used for reading and writing, and Spoken Jordanian Arabic, one of the colloquial dialects of the language.

Birthday celebrationA birthday celebration with members of Kailey Colestock’s host family.

Since colloquial Arabic is spoken, not written, the class was a new experience for Colestock. “I was used to taking written tests, spelling tests, vocab tests, things like that,” she said. “Instead, [the instructor] would say ‘Here’s a topic, you have to design a skit based around it’ or you would have an interview with your professor about it.”

As the semester went on, Colestock’s confidence grew. “I learned that even if I didn’t understand all the words that somebody was saying to me, if I just kind of listened and really focused, I could get by and understand what they were saying and be able to respond appropriately,” she noted. “Sometimes that backfired and I thought someone was saying something slightly different than they were, but for the most part it worked out really well and I was surprised at how well I was able to rely on that.”

Like all of the students on the program, Colestock and one of her program classmates lived with a host family in Amman, putting them in the midst of Jordanian culture. Two of her host mother’s adult children lived at home, along with their younger brother.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better host family,” she said. “I could be with people my age – [my host mother’s] two older children – and I could talk to them and have conversations that I thought were meaningful. My 12-year-old brother reminded me a lot of my own little brother. He was very playful, would get me to stop doing my homework and come play soccer with him, and all kinds of fun little games that we invented.”

Roman ruins at JerashViewing Roman ruins on a program excursion to Jerash.

In a way, her host family was much larger, since frequent gatherings to celebrate birthdays or just to get together to socialize over cups of tea usually included lots of relatives. There were also outings with members of the extended family, such as going olive picking. “It was me and my roommate and all of our cousins and family,” Colestock recalled. “That was just a ton of fun, spending all day having a picnic and picking olives.”

As part of the program, AMIDEAST arranged trip to sites throughout Jordan, such as the Roman ruins at Jerash and the ancient city of Petra. “The program excursions are really important in developing an appreciation and better understanding of this country’s history, what it looks like, and its natural beauty,” said Colestock. “That was something I really appreciated getting the chance to do while I was over there – taking a break from studies and going to these really interesting and beautiful places.”

Academically, she branched out by taking a course in Traditional Islamic Arts, which introduced how geometry is the basis of many Islamic art forms and included hands-on drawing, calligraphy, and wood carving.

Her other elective course was Women and Society in the Arab World, which covered a wide range of cultural, economic, and political issues impacting the lives of women in the Middle East. Hijab was one of the topics in the course, with an emphasis on the diverse ways that hijab can be interpreted and its different manifestations across the region.

A fruit souk in AmmanShopping at a fruit souk (open-air market) in Amman.

Colestock’s interest in issues affecting women in the Middle East, and perceptions of those issues in Western countries, led her to choose “Agency in Amman: Women and the Hijab” as the topic of her independent study project. Her advisor was the program’s visiting faculty member, sociologist Khaldoun Samman from Macalester College.

At the Student Symposium – the video of her presentation is on the ACM website – Colestock outlined the context surrounding her research, described the methodology of her project, and discussed her findings.

The project wove together academic and experiential aspects of the program, as she reviewed scholarly literature on the topic, conducted in-depth interviews with ten Jordanian women, and wrote up her results. Working on the project also sharpened her observations of women in Amman, as she paid more attention to what women were wearing – their individual styles of dress and whether they were hijab or not – and talked about hijab with her host mother and other women she knew.

“Speaking with women in Amman [for the project] allowed me to gain cultural awareness, learn to listen to new perspectives, and think critically about what are presented to be major global concerns,” Colestock noted. “It’s a really complicated topic that can’t be summed up in a word or a glance.”


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