Is being a man in the Arab world truly cause for celebration? Not if you happen to be a fourteen to twenty-four year old male in Amman, where it has become common practice to exclude young men from public and semi-public spaces. This trend is on the rise, and reflects a deeper issue of class discrimination, which receives very little public attention, despite having serious social implications. Exclusion and class discrimination serve to bolster a public discourse which renders marginalization socially acceptable, promote unnatural forms of class and gender segregation that prevent the natural functioning of society, exacerbate factors that justify exclusion, and feed into much more complex social challenges, of which exclusion is merely a symptom.
Exclusion in Amman is best understood within the context of the city’s development. Over time, Amman has become divided along socioeconomic borders, with a loosely defined geographical border placing more affluent residents to the west of the city, and less affluent residents to its east. This divide is underlined by an uneven distribution of resources and services, leaving the more populous East Amman at a distinct disadvantage in terms of education, health and other services. The city has also witnessed rapid urbanization, with built-up areas growing six fold in the past four decades. The malls and cafes of West Amman are popular amongst young people seeking to fill leisure time and in some cases to experience less restrictive social norms, but almost without exception, these establishments will not allow young men in unless accompanied by a female. The same holds true for concerts, public souqs, and certain pedestrian areas.
Exclusion clearly has its roots in economic factors, as emphasized by the decision-making process for entry into spaces that practice exclusion. Guards will assess the appearance of the young men at the door, and decide whether an exception should be made based on perceived affluence and influence. Policies at the municipal level also back this up, with authorities bowing to pressure from merchants to remove public seating and restrict access to non-buyers. Establishments are loath to admit this, however, and justify exclusion on the premise of sexual harassment. This is not an unfounded claim. In fact, sexual harassment is prevalent in Amman, and causes women a great deal of distress. There are countless stories by women of catcalling, lewd remarks and gestures, groping and pinching. These incidents usually occur in public or semi-public spaces, on public transportation, and to a lesser degree at universities and other gender-mixed environments.
To place the issue of sexual harassment into context, it is important to mention that 76% of children in Amman attend public school, where boys and girls are segregated into wholly single-sex environments at grade four. As a result, boys are not accustomed to regarding women as authority figures or girls as peers, while girls are not accustomed to dealing with boys from outside their immediate family circles, where male relatives wield considerable power. In their own communities, young men mostly refrain from harassing women, but outside their neighborhoods, they are emboldened to do so with the support of their friends, who view it as a macho act. Anonymity, a lack of awareness of required conduct in public spaces, a deep-rooted sense of entitlement, and a lack of familiarity with the opposite sex combine to create fertile ground for harassment, which, like other aspects of traditional masculinity, is often an expression of power.
This is especially important in light of the machismo and sense of entitlement that boys experience, and that are byproducts of Jordan’s patriarchal society. It is still preferable for many families to have a male child - prized for carrying the family name, potentially providing family financial support, and being less likely to “shame” the family. Boys are allowed certain privileges, primarily in freedom of mobility, with 55% of Jordanian parents stating that girls must only leave the house accompanied by their brother. This stems from and feeds into the notion that boys and men are responsible for girls and women in their family, and have the right to exercise control over them.
There is a price to pay, however, for being a boy in Jordan, particularly one from a lower socioeconomic class. While education is almost equally valued for boys and girls, with 67.8% of parents desiring their daughters to go on to higher education (71.6 % for sons), at the secondary level, 78% of girls and only 73% of boys continue to attend, while at university, 55% of graduates are female. Additionally, girls outperform boys at almost all levels of education, even in science, in contrasts to global findings.
Even more striking is that of the 57% of children in Jordan who are subject to physical, verbal and nonverbal abuse at school, a significantly higher proportion of boys are subjected to severe physical abuse (67%), and to sexual harassment at 12% versus 3% for girls. Corporal punishment at schools is outlawed, and while this is enforced at private schools, public schools are left to administer physical abuse with few repercussions. Additionally, of the approximately 37,000 child laborers in Jordan, 90% are male, working an average of 40.6 hours a week, often under life-threatening circumstances.
None of the above is presented to justify acts of domination by males in Jordanian society, but rather to point to the urgent need for interventions that serve the interest of social justice. In this regard, it is essential to provide alternatives to the prevailing culture of patriarchy, which places boys, and particularly those from lower incomes, in danger of socially condoned violence and exclusion, and girls in a position of vulnerability to male violence and control, which is equally condoned. For this to happen, prevalent theories around the superiority of boys need to be rethought, as do those around male behavior, including assumptions that the ways in which boys behave are hardwired, rather than a reflection a number of factors and influences over time, and thus capable of being positively altered through specific approaches.
The urgency stems from the fact that a tipping point is on the horizon, where the level of public and private violence may exceed that tolerated by society. This is reflected in an increase in public and private occurrences of small and large-scale violence perpetrated by young men against their families, communities, tribes, and university peers.