Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the US and (what I have experienced of) the Arab world is gender relations. What strikes me the most in this regard is not the fact that most women dress more conservatively than in America; I respect these decisions to dress modestly. It is the ways in which young men and women are expected to communicate and the degrees to which they are allowed to have contact with each other.
To me, the differences are astounding. People in Amman are generally expected to not initiate contact with strangers of the opposite gender. It would appear that the only way young people can meet is through mutual friends who can vouch for high character or in a designated environment (university, place of work, family friends, etc). On the other hand, cat-calls and rampant staring are routine among young men in public places where young women pass by. This creates what in economics is referred to as a negative externality: cafes, bars, and other establishments (even malls) will refuse service to young men who are not with women (as in couples or families). The intentions of young men in this environment are assumed less than savory. I should point out that foreign men are—conversely—often assumed to be “good guys.” I am embarrassed to admit that my nationality has granted me admittance into establishments that a Jordanian of my age, gender, and occupation would likely have been denied access to. We have the same biology, dreams, desires, and fears, but the knowledge proprietors have about the young men of their country (or, perhaps put better, lack of knowledge of my culture) leads them to make a rather arbitrary decision. This is particularly surprising because of the images Jordanians receive of Americans as selfish, opulent, sex-driven, and sometimes violent people (thanks, MTV and Hollywood). In spite of these stereotypes being constantly transmitted, people here often assume the young men of my country subscribe to higher moral standards than the young men of Jordan.
I have just described the opposite of the customs I know in the states, where we take for granted the ability to talk to anyone we want—regardless of sex—and when one initiates friendly banter with someone of the opposite gender, intentions are not presumed to be sinister. In fact, it is not uncommon for men and women to be simply—wait for it—friends. Dating between two people is not shunned by the better portion of society but instead serves as perhaps the only route to marriage. Moreover, it is considered creepy and very rude to stare at another person as they walk by, and in my city the only time I ever hear lewd cat-calls is in the wee hours of the morning as the bars begin to shoo away their patrons. These vast differences intrigue me, and I want to know the roots of this (what I perceive to be a) serious problem. Does it stem from the advent of American/Western culture into Jordanian society, or is it something deeper? This is a question I am not academically equipped to answer, but based on what I have seen in my two months here I have of course developed my own mess of thoughts on the matter.
My theory of why these young men behave the way they do in public and the consequent mistrust that pervades this society revolves around the barriers that exist here between men and women. Imagine you are a boy growing up in Jordan. You don’t have much contact with girls your age outside your family, as schools are gender-segregated up until university. Even if you know some girls, your actions, including physical contact (hand holding, footsy, etc) are severely limited by social norms (on the other hand, hand holding and arm locking is quite common among male friends, which I think makes sense—perhaps humans have to have some form of physical contact with their friends and loved ones, not unlike a cat who loves being petted). I think you can agree that your innate human affinity for love, for intimacy and for a partner would inevitably appear in other outlets, maybe even as crude as cat-calling and ogling with friends. Don’t get me wrong; it’s objectifying and I am not trying to defend this behavior, I want only to understand it.
In accord with this trend of reactions to (again, what I perceive as) repressive social norms, many of my Jordanian friends tell me their family frowns upon or outright forbids dating (a Western concept), so they date in secret in parts of town where their friends and extended family are unlikely to spot them.
So that is my theory so far. I am very interested to know others’ thoughts on this matter and am still left with many questions. As a young man I am of course limited in my view; I am curious to hear about this experience from a woman’s perspective. I presume it is more difficult still for gays and lesbians to meet prospective partners. Finally, will the Arab Spring revolutions serve to change social norms as well as political systems and ideas (or is this even necessary)? I am glad to be in a prime part of the world to observe the unfolding of these questions.