Public Places – the domain of men?

The main street through the village I lived in is a good place to start. It is the domain of the men. For a woman to walk here, with her virtue still intact, she must be old, she must keep her eyes to the front like a blinkered horse and she must walk down the centre of the road in order to avoid contact with the men who command the pavements: she must be on her way either to the mountains with the family's goats or to make money from the tourists in Petra. Or, if young, she shouldn't be alone, she should be on an errand for her mother and she should be conducting her business as quickly as possible in order to return to the safety of the home. Many women don't risk it, preferring to use the parallel back streets or, indeed, to stay at home.

In the shops, women expect to wait until men and boys have been served or to have their transactions interrupted by a new male arrival. The vans of fruit and vegetable sellers which can weave through the narrow back lanes are very popular. They allow women to go no further than the gate in the high wall surrounding their homes.

Behind the walls of a smart house at the top of the village lives a new bride called Noor. As a young woman, she once helped me to protect a mentally and physically disabled youth who was being persecuted by a large gang of stone-throwing boys. A young man had come and asked her father for her but the father knew him to be a drinker and he had been refused. For five years she kept largely out of sight, behind the walls of her father's house, waiting, like many other women, for someone else to come and ask for her.

'Protection' can often be a euphemism for oppression, borne of an underlying conviction that women are somehow 'lesser'. My neighbour's daughter once took shelter in my house from a drunken uncle. Her 'crime' had been that she had been up on the flat roof of the house, properly dressed in every way, in order – at her mother's request – to check the water levels in the three tanks. He regarded it as a flagrant attempt to display herself.

Such attitudes to women are not confined to rural areas. They are evident throughout Jordan including the capital city, Amman. In March 2010, the Jordan Times reported a particularly shocking court case. A man had been sentenced to five years imprisonment and his sons, aged fourteen and seventeen at the time of the crime, to one and two years in juvenile detention. Their crime was that they had beaten to death their 19 year old daughter and sister, respectively.
The woman had wanted to visit the local shops. Enjoying the freedom to browse, she had strayed into the neighbouring district, albeit in the same parade. An uncle saw her, stopped his car and took her home. Incensed, the father tied his daughter to a tree in the garden and started to beat her with a section of hosepipe. When his two sons returned home, he cut the hose in two. The other son armed himself with a stick so that all three could beat her. After two hours, she lost consciousness. Ice was put on the soles of her feet in an attempt to revive her - without success. Her uncle took her to hospital where she was pronounced dead. The subsequent post mortem revealed the cause of death to be a brain haemorrhage. An interesting additional piece of information, given the nature of her injuries, was the confirmation that she had not been sexually active.

The men's defence was that it was not their intention to kill her, but simply to discipline her. This justification was accepted by the court.

Women are not 'walking wombs'. They are not household servants. They are not Jezebels out to corrupt all decent men. At the very least, give them the right to walk on their own streets.


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