On a trip several years ago to New York City, lone outings at night were usually companied by an immense fear of being robbed, harassed or chased down a dimly lit alley by a loose-toothed criminal wearing fingerless gloves. Rather luckily, this series of misfortunes never occurred, though I believe I got close to it on quite a few occasions. On an upbeat contrast, excursions as a woman alone in Amman are far less dodgy.
After living in Jordan for the past two years, I have had my fair share of unique experiences roaming the narrow, bumpy streets of Amman. Despite the fact that yes, men will notice what I do what I’m wearing and you grow accustomed to the head-to-foot glances as you walk by, I have never lived in a place where I felt safer walking in night. Recently, a number of female friends have reported incidences where they were followed by men here, but those incidents are fortunately quite isolated.
Living in one of the most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in town, Jabal El Weibdeh, I have long since found a sense of delight and comfort in the fences that carry droopy vines of blossoming jasmine, close-knit neighborhoods, and a slew of organic cafes, shawerma spots and places to get my groceries. I often walk to and from Paris circle and likewise around Weibdeh for little strolls. While much of my adventurous spirit was quelled due to the rise of general harassment – things like cat calls, staring and generally feeling uncomfortable– I would never say I did not feel safe. I just felt disconcerted by all the attention I was receiving. That being said, what you wear and how you go about doing your thang has a direct correlation, most of the time, with how much of this superfluous attention you receive. I will be the first to state, however, that I don’t think girls should have to consider what they wear and they should not be held liable for attracting attention, but unfortunately, here, that’s the nature of the beast. When wearing sweats, no make-up and hair like a birds nest, I get considerably less attention. For girls who hope to walk from their home in head to toe sequins to Café De Paris for a night of shameless dancing with randos, I would suggest investing/paying practically nothing for a long trench coat from the Friday Market. This trench coat, as lightweight as you want, will eventually become your best friend. You can cover any “scandalous” outfit with it, and will garner a lot less attention over your brief jaunt into the public sphere. I myself have even considered donning an abaya, but that just seems like a big commitment of a different breed.
Once, I was feeling quite experimental and decided to ditch the makeup/hair products and opt for the more conservative approach: the hijab. I wanted to experience downtown, or Wast-el-balad, with the veil on and see the sort of attention I would draw, if any. I wore loose, plain black clothing and a crisp black hijab, fashioned tightly around my head. As I got into the taxi, I began to feel like a wholly different person. Even the tone of voice of the cabbie shifted to something akin to respect. As he dropped me downtown, whereas I normally feel a bit of trepidation, I felt at ease; in my element, even. I sauntered through the teeming Saturday downtown streets on my way to the vegetable market, noticing that the usual sideways glances and winks were nowhere to be found. As I entered shops, I wasn’t flocked to like a piece of raw rib-eye steak; I was greeted merely by an inconsequential “Salamolakom” and a nod. I was left to do my bidding in peace, and was astounded by how unusual the reaction was. Because I didn’t look markedly like a foreigner anymore, I was treated in a completely disparate manner. Now, this isn’t to say that they objectify all foreigners, but it goes without saying that in any place, foreigners are always given more attention. They’re the ones who buy the poorly made trinkets indubitably made in China; they’re the ones who will pay 8JD for a small box of arghila tobacco. So I get it. But it felt as if suddenly a glaring and clarifying light bulb was floating over my head; wear a hijab and you’re virtually indistinguishable.
After I finished up my errands downtown, I hailed a taxi and headed back to my neighborhood. Though I felt heaps more comfortable downtown, alone, with the hijab, I do not know that I would do it again.
In the end, I concluded that yes, you will be stared at in Jordan. But it’s not all bad. Part of it can even be amusing at times. The best thing you can do, however, outside of perhaps adding a piece of clothing to your public wardrobe and being generally aware of where you are and who is around, is learn to tune it out, and know that despite all those inquisitive, curious eyes on you, you’re safe.
How have your experiences around Amman been? What advice could you offer?