“It’s easy for women to travel alone in Jordan. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, as I was, by people’s reactions – the best preparation is just to head out with self-confidence, curiosity and a sense of humour. People are extremely willing to help, and almost everyone invited me for tea – a boy selling tablecloths, taxi-drivers, even the guardian in the museum.
Travelling for a time with a male friend felt a little unreal. Suddenly, people stopped talking to me and paid attention only to him. This was probably due more to respect for me than condescension, but I couldn’t help feeling a little upset – though it put me in a great position to just observe events.
It is vital to be able to take things lightly. For instance, I was followed by a bunch of teenage boys for at least an hour through the whole of Salt. They had a great time, running around and making jokes. My mistake was to try and get away. I should have stayed and talked to them, lived up to my role and – best of all – taken a picture. They’d have loved that.”
Anna Hohler, journalist
“One day in Karak, I was doing some exercises in my hotel room. The door was locked, the shades were down. I happened to glance up. Above the closet there was a small set of windows (hadn’t noticed them before), with a man’s face, quickly disappearing.
The following morning, when I saw Mr Peeper in the lobby, he stared right at me without an ounce of shame. Being spied on is no surprise in any culture, but his lack of shame was a cultural lesson for me – not about relations between men and women in Jordan (because I think Jordanian women command a great deal of respect), but rather because I was assumed not to question his rights over my body.
You can regulate the respect you receive according to the way you dress. Complying with the standards of the place you’re visiting relieves you from harassment. It also signals your intention to understand. The assumptions about Western women are so image-based that changing your image will change your reception. It’s as simple as that.”
Karinne Keithley, dancer
“Living and working in Jordan was rewarding and very comfortable. Modifying my dress and behaviour to match social norms helped immensely. Just wearing loose clothes and long-sleeved shirts made me feel more confident and relaxed, especially in more traditional areas, and allowed local people to take me seriously. Being friendly with men I didn’t know inevitably got me in trouble, since they interpreted it as flirting: I tried never to smile at men on the street and to keep my interactions with waiters and shopkeepers on a reserved and businesslike footing. This doesn’t mean I didn’t get stared at – I did. But I came to accept that in some places, as a foreigner, I was an exotic sight to be seen, as much as Jordanian people are exotic to visitors.
The flipside of avoiding men’s stares was that I could smile and look freely at women. Since most women adopt a serious, frozen expression on the street it was a great surprise, smiling tentatively at a woman passer-by or exchanging a few words of greeting, to see her face light up with a broad smile in response. I had an immediate, spontaneous connection which surpassed words and cultural differences.”
Michelle Woodward, photographer